This information explains what children can think, feel or do after an accident and suggests ways you can help (and where you can get extra help if you need it).
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The health information below is for general educational purposes only. Always consult a doctor or other health professional to make sure this information is right for you.
There is no right or wrong way to react, every child reacts differently to a car crash.
Children are very resilient and most of them recover quite quickly. Your child's age matters, and plays a factor in how kids respond.
The two most common reactions are:
- most children show little (or no) ongoing distress straight after the initial fright
- child shows stronger or more intense distress initially, but recovers relatively quickly over the course of time
In some children, distress can persist or worsen over weeks and months after the crash. A very small number of children will seem fine at first but then show symptoms of distress related to the accident sometimes months later.
Although some of these reactions may seem unusual, they are considered to be a normal response to an abnormal event.
If your child’s symptoms persist for more than a month, or if they get worse, it’s a good idea to seek help from a health professional.
Children (and young people) will usually respond differently depending how old they are, and these responses can change over time.
After a car crash, children aged up to 6 years might relive the crash through play or drawings.
They might become more fussy or clingy, or have more tantrums than usual.
Some might go back to doing things they did when they were younger, for example using baby talk.
They might develop new fears that don’t have anything to do with the crash, for example being scared of the dark.
After a car crash, children aged 6-12 years might relive the crash through nightmares or upsetting thoughts that pop into their head.
They might avoid reminders of the crash.
They might become more aggressive or disobedient, or withdraw from family and friends.
They may be more anxious about their own safety and the safety of their loved ones.
After a car crash, young people aged 13-18 years can re-experience the crash by talking about it a lot.
They might be on edge and have difficulty concentrating and sleeping.
They might have mood swings, and worry that their reactions aren’t normal.
Their school performance might change, and they might not want to do things they used to enjoy.
They might avoid social events and have relationship troubles with friends and family.
Children’s reactions to a car crash can change over time. For example, they may have nightmares soon after the crash, which can develop into sleep problems and tiredness that can affect their school work.
Or they may be clingy and distressed soon after the crash, which can influence their social skills and cause some relationship difficulties.
Remember that immediate and short-term symptoms like nightmares, clinginess, fear and distress are very common.
Only a very small number of children will develop any long-term effects from a car crash.
What you can do to help your child
Parents are incredibly important to children, and there is a lot you can do to help your child to recover after a car crash.
Apart from continuing to provide love and support to your child, here are some other suggestions:
Don’t push your child to talk about the crash. Instead, offer them the opportunity to express any thoughts, feelings and reactions they have when they’re ready to talk.
Ask your child if they want to talk, but in a way that respects their wishes if they don’t. For example:
- “It might feel weird to talk about these things at first, but sometimes it can feel better to get them out.”
Ask general questions about how they’ve been feeling and coping. For example:
- “Have things been different since the crash? I’ve noticed that you’ve stopped doing some things that you used to enjoy doing. Is there a reason for that?”
If your child talks about their feelings, acknowledge their point of view and let them know that their thoughts and feelings are normal.
Accept assistance from supportive people, and try to work together as a family.
It may be useful to talk to your child’s teacher to let them know that your child’s behaviour and school performance may be different while they recover from the crash.
Very young children rely on their parents for emotional support to help them with stress in their lives.
Children rely on routines to feel safe and secure.
As soon as you can, return to your normal routine as much as possible.
Sometimes the best way to get over a car crash is to do fun things with your child. For example:
- take a walk
- tell funny jokes
- play a board game
- read a story
- go to a movie
There can be some negative things to deal with after a car crash. It’s important to also focus on positive behaviours and healthy coping strategies, and to name these out loud to your child.
This can be as simple as praising your child when you notice a positive behaviour (eg helping with the dishes) or a personal strength (eg playing well with their siblings or other children).
It’s a reminder that there are still good things happening, and it reinforces the behaviour you’d like to encourage.
What you can do to look after yourself
Just like their child, parents can also experience some strong reactions after a car crash.
Many parents comment on feeling helpless, lost, confused, stressed and sometimes guilty.
These are all normal reactions and will usually pass with time.
If you notice that you’re having negative thoughts, deliberately replace them with thoughts that will calm you down when you’re stressed or lift you up if you’re feeling down.
Examples of coping statements:
- “I have gotten through this before, I can do it again”
- “I can always talk to…”
- “It will be over soon”
- “Just relax”
- “I can get through this”
- “I am going to be alright”
- “It is not the end of the world”
- “I have gotten through worse”
- “I am strong enough to deal with this”
Take a moment to think about how you’re coping. Be aware of your own reactions, emotions and needs, and how you might be showing these.
If you notice that you’re feeling stressed or upset, implement some self-care strategies.
If your own signs of distress last longer than a few weeks, it might be a good idea to seek assistance and support for yourself.
It is important to know that there is further help available and when to access it.
Many children will not show any reactions after a car crash. If they do, most children will return to normal quite quickly. However, some children will need some extra help and assistance.
It’s a good idea to seek help if:
- your child’s symptoms persist for more than a month, or if they get worse
- your child’s concentration and academic functioning is affected
- it becomes harder for your child to control their emotions (eg anger, crying)
- changes in your child’s social behaviour is causing problems (eg withdrawing from friends, fighting)
- your child returns to behaviours that they used to do at younger ages (eg baby talk, difficulties toileting).
Visit the emotional recovery in children quick reference guide for health professionals and the insurance industry to help a child recover emotionally after a car crash.