Reaction to a traumatic or stressful event

Following a frightening experience, it is normal to have emotions and thoughts that may stay with us for some time. 

If your child or teen has experienced a dramatic or scary event, he/she may react strongly. 

For example, car accidents, significant injuries (example: dog bites, severe burns), or witnessing a family member being gravely injured can be quite traumatic for young people.

Although parents worry about bringing up the event, it can help to talk things over. This should be done in a sensitive way (please see suggestions below on how to talk with children and teens about stressful events).

It is not unusual in the first few weeks after a traumatic event for a child or teen to show some changes in behaviour and play activities.

Parents often notice increased nightmares, changes in outward behaviour (example: increased irritability, changes in character), changes in play activities (example: repetitive playing out of the accident or event), and complaints of physical symptoms (example: headaches, stomach-aches).  These can be indications that your child or teen is distressed.  

If thoughts or feelings or images about the event persist beyond four weeks, occur frequently and/or disrupt your child or your teen’s everyday life, we recommend a mental health professional be consulted for further assistance.

There are many effective and helpful treatments that can help your child or teen return to his/her usual self.


American Psychiatric Association (1994).  Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: Fourth Edition.  Washington, D.C.

Responding to stressful events: Helping teens cope
Public Health Agency of Canada 


Reviewed by Trauma specialists at the Montreal Children’s Hospital.
Last updated: July 2013, January 2016


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