There are different types of trauma: complex trauma and single-event trauma.
While complex trauma is the result of repeated or ongoing traumatic events, single-event trauma is caused by a one-time event which threatens a person’s life, safety or mental wellbeing. The incident will be stressful and can have a significant impact on their emotional state.These traumatic events could include physical or sexual assault, car accident, war, terrorism or torture, death or serious injury, or natural disaster like a bushfire or flood – such as the recent floods affecting families across NSW.
Common symptoms of single-event trauma
Every person reacts differently to these kinds of traumatic events. There is no right or wrong way to react, and we all experience different feelings and emotions after living through something distressing.
It’s not uncommon for people to say they are okay after experiencing trauma, but sometimes they actually do need some support, so it can be helpful to know some of the common reactions and symptoms of single-event trauma.
- anger and rage
- feeling guilt or shame
- feeling emotionally numb or detached
- concentration or memory issues
- problems with sleeping
- nightmares, flashbacks or intrusive thoughts
- being jumpy or easily startled, or always feeling 'on guard'
- physical symptoms such as headaches, stomach ache and exhaustion
- constantly reliving or going over memories of event
- fixation on watching or reading the news about the event
- avoidance or refusal to acknowledge the event or any reminders of it
- feeling distant or withdrawing from friends and family
- no interest in hobbies or favourite activities
- feeling like there's no hope for the future
How can I help support my teen who has recently experienced a traumatic event?
Research shows there are five major principles that are important to consider: a sense of safety, calmness, community efficacy, social connectedness, and hope.
It’s important to talk about what your teen has gone through, and acknowledge that their experience was distressing and difficult, and that support might be needed. If you don’t communicate about a traumatic event, it can reinforce in your teenager’s mind that the incident is something that shouldn’t be spoken about, which can lead to more issues later.
It's also important not to force your teen to talk about how they are feeling – research shows that not everybody wants or needs support after a trauma. However, it is important to check in with them regularly to make sure they are feeling okay. The more you show them you are open to conversation, the more likely they are to eventually open up in a way that suits them.
As their parent, teenagers may also find it difficult to talk about the incident to you in particular. These conversations can be difficult, but try not to be hurt by this – instead, reassure them that you will always support them, and will be there whenever they are ready to talk about it. Let them know you’d be happy to help them find someone they do feel comfortable talking to.
Create routines and normality
Creating a sense of safety for young people is particularly important after a traumatic incident, as it can help to regain a sense of control and normality. This can look different for everyone.
Common suggestions include:
- provide safe, cosy spaces to promote the ideas of rest and comfort
- maintaining predictable routines, such as school, after-school activities, work, shopping, exercise regimes - try to reinstating similar routines that your teen had before the traumatic event
- help them write down a plan of what their time over the upcoming days will look like
- provide regular nutritious meals
- encourage healthy rest and sleep sleep routines
- encourage them to return to their hobbies, sports or any favourite activities
- limit exposure to triggering or traumatic content on television or social media (be particularly mindful of news content about the incident that they experienced)
Some people who have experienced trauma can find getting back into their old routines, taking part in certain activities, or completing regular tasks extremely difficult or exhausting. It’s important to promote gentle encouragement rather than forcing them. After a trauma, it can take time to feel comfortable with getting back into a routine, so make sure they know you’re there to support them all the way through this process.
These suggestions might also be challenging or even impossible if the trauma experienced included displacement or loss of home (after a natural disaster, for example). If this is the case, try your best to create any sort of simple routine you can, and look for support from loved ones, the wider community or government initiatives to help your family find safety and regain a sense of regularity.
Your teen may also feel a sense of loss of control after the event. Mindfulness practices and activities that create a healthy mental wellbeing will help foster a positive mindset, as well as help them focus on what they can control to help them stabilise. You can also encourage them to find the activities that suit their needs by exploring the Emerging Minds Community Toolkit.
Engage with community
Engagement with your teen’s community is extremely important for their recovery. This may mean their school community, friendship groups, neighbourhood, sporting clubs, gaming or online groups that they’re a part of.
Encourage them to catch up with their friends, and remind them that they can always talk to their friends, family or teachers and let them know how they’re feeling. Take notice if they are withdrawing from their loved ones, and seek extra support if you notice them avoiding social situations.
If your teen is finding it difficult to talk about the traumatic event, it may be helpful to engage with people who have gone through something similar. Online groups can be extremely beneficial for this, and can help the young person feel understood and reassured, from the comfort of their home.
ReachOut.com has online forums that are anonymous and available 24/7, so your teen can find other young people who have similar experiences with trauma to speak with.
Be patient with them, and yourself
Your teen may be feeling scared and vulnerable, so try your best to be a positive role model for them; promote calmness and patience, strength and understanding.
Be conscious that watching your teen experience something traumatic will likely affect you too, so make sure to look after yourself, as well. Take time for yourself, prioritise your health as well as your child’s, and find support if you need to speak about how you are feeling.
Children will often recognise if you are struggling, so be honest with them about your feelings.
How to get extra support
Most people will begin to recover from the symptoms of a single traumatic incident within a few weeks. However, some people find that their symptoms persist, or even increase and evolve, which can be a sign of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Addressing trauma quickly after the event can reduce the likelihood of PTSD or ongoing trauma symptoms, so it is a good idea to seek support from a professional as early as you can.
Visiting a GP with your teen, or helping them book their own appointment, is a positive place to start. They will be able to show the young person options for where to find support, and if needed, refer them to a professional or create a mental health care plan for them. Alternatively, you can help your teen find nearby counsellors that may be able to help.
If your teen is looking for someone to chat with now, Lifeline (13 11 14) and Kids Helpline (1800 55 1800) are available to talk 24/7. Headspace also has information about single-event trauma and resources for young people available.
You can also find information about emergency assistance and other support for disasters in your location by visiting Services Australia.