My 5 year old had an accident and hurt her head. After coming home from the hospital, she refused to talk about what happened. What should we do?
MOLLY: The reader added that her daughter was very brave at the hospital and didn’t cry at all even though she needed a number of stitches. But after they got home, she not only refused to talk about what happened, she also has had trouble leaving the house and didn’t want anyone at school knowing what had happened.
Essentially what do you do when your kid experiences some sort of trauma? How do you deal with it after?
Dr. Susan Rutherford (MOM): One of the most important things that you have to do is talk about what happened.
MOLLY: How exactly do you do that – especially if your child says she “doesn’t want to talk about it.”
MOM: It can be hard because sometimes, not infrequently, it happens where the child refuses to talk about what happened while as the parent you can see where this could lead. She becomes quieter, doesn’t want to leave the house, doesn’t want anyone to know what happened.
This in fact happened to you, Molly, when you were about this same age. You had croup and we had to take you to the hospital in the middle of the night. You were in the hospital for four days, I stayed with you the entire time but when we came home, you refused to talk about what happened, too.
MOLLY: What do you mean? How would I refuse?
MOM: I remember asking you, “What do you think about what happened?” And you would reply, “I don’t want to talk about it!” And then you would put your head down on the table, and sometimes you would cry. Just like this other child cries at the memory. It’s a very similar story and I think it’s a very common story after a child has some trauma, and especially one that involves going to the hospital.
The method for healing a child’s psyche after a traumatic event is to talk about it together as much as you can. The reason you want to do this is that you don’t want the memory to “go underground,” so to speak, in the child’s mind because it could play out in some sort of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) symptom later on. If the child won’t talk about it, you really don’t know how the child perceived the event.
MOLLY: How do you talk about it when the child insists she doesn’t want to talk about it? It can feel like pulling teeth to get kids to open up sometimes…
MOM: Children can say they don’t want to talk about it, but you, as a parent, can still talk about it with them. You can talk about the event itself, you can talk about how scared you felt during the whole thing, and you can offer that maybe it was scary for her, too. However you make it happen, you definitely want to talk about it.
MOLLY: So you say: “This is what happened….” Or: “Did you know we were always there with you, for the whole thing?”
MOM: Yes, exactly. Because you don’t know how the child perceives it. She may somehow perceive that it was her fault, or that it could happen again, or that she’s no longer safe.
I have a pediatrician friend whose kid had to go to the hospital for a hernia and when the child got out of the hospital, he accused his mother of abandoning him. He really had a mis-perception of what had actually happened. It’s very important to talk about what has happened and if the child won’t talk about it, you need to talk about it anyway. It’s best to start these conversations right away, in the aftermath but before the event takes on epic proportions and paralyzes the child with fear.
MOM: The other thing you can do is to find some books that you can read to the child about going to the hospital after an accident or an illness. This can be very, very helpful. A good librarian or bookseller can steer you in the right direction.
MOLLY: So you can use books as a tool.
MOM: Right. But the idea is that you talk about the incident as much as possible to avoid it developing a life of its own.
MOLLY: So you just keep talking to the child, even if she doesn’t respond or give input? Do you do this every day or all at once?
MOM: You talk about it a little each day in a very matter-of-fact manner. You don’t want to load it up with a lot of emotion. If the kid doesn’t want to leave the house, you want to gradually get her to leave the house. Like playing outside the house in the yard together, or going to a special event together, like out to lunch.
You’ll want to get her back to school as quickly as possible, too. If she doesn’t want to tell her friends or her teacher about it at the outset, that’s okay. I would share it privately with the teacher, but you want to give her time for that. You’ll want to talk to her about the benefits of sharing the information. “Maybe some of the kids in your class have gone to the hospital, too, and will tell you about how it felt for them to go to the hospital.”
The other part of this is the guilt factor. If you don’t know how the child perceives the event, you don’t know if she may be feeling inappropriately guilty for some reason. She may believe that something she did caused whatever happened to happen. That black feeling can stay with a kid forever, so you don’t want that to happen. You’ll want to talk about accidents and how accidents just happen or illnesses and how illness just happen. Use words like: “We don’t make them happen, they just happen.”
MOLLY: So the kid doesn’t end up feeling like it’s her fault.
MOM: Exactly. Because kids often carry some loaded idea with them about what happened.
MOLLY: So what might happen if you don’t talk about it with her and just move on after the event without ever really discussing it again?
MOM: What sometimes happens is that you’ll see it pop up every now and then later on in someone’s life, and she won’t even know why she is having an overblown emotional reaction. She won’t understand where it’s coming from. Even though we’ve been talking about a little girl, the same holds true for boys (and later men) of course.
MOLLY: What could that look like?
MOM: What can happen if this isn’t dealt with? Perhaps, later on in life, if she has to go to the hospital for some reason, she will likely have an intense emotional reaction to it and not want to go, even if she needs to. And she won’t know why she’s so resistant because it will be so disconnected from her consciousness. Of course, it might not be about a hospital at all; it might be an overblown emotional response to something else entirely.
The idea is that you keep the trauma from going underground and being a secret because she can face it down if it gets talked about and in her consciousness.
MOLLY: Do you see people who are operating from fear or guilt left over from childhood trauma in your practice?
MOM: I do. A clue for me when I do therapy is when these people grow up and have their own children. When something happens to their own child at the age that it happened to them, their reaction is so intense that I have to help them look back at their own past to see what happened. So much of how we conduct ourselves as adults comes out of our childhood experiences. Many times people want to know when the trauma has been healed. The way you can tell is when the person can talk about the incident without feeling much if any emotion. Then you know it’s over.
Experience this? Comment below if you’ve had success in dealing with the trauma of an accident with your children. Or Contact US if you have other parenting questions you’d like to see addressed.