WHAT TO EXPECT

What Is Traumatic Stress?

Traumatic stress is a psychological reaction that some people, including children, have to a traumatic experience. These reactions may even interfere with the person’s ability to cope and participate in daily activities.

What Is Traumatic Stress?

Traumatic stress is a psychological reaction that some people, including children, have to a traumatic experience. These reactions may even interfere with the person’s ability to cope and participate in daily activities.

So what happens now?

In the hours, days, weeks, and even months after your son or daughter’s illness diagnosis or injury, you will likely find you do not feel “like yourself”. You might startle easily or feel more “jumpy”. Maybe you’re having trouble getting to sleep at all or staying asleep. At times, you could find yourself reliving the exact moment your child was injured or when the doctor gave you your child’s diagnosis over and over repeatedly. Perhaps now you find it’s really hard to pay attention at work, or to enjoy your favorite television show.

Why is this happening?

Much like a solider in war, when your child is injured or diagnosed with illness, your life dramatically changes almost instantly. It is very distressing emotionally and is considered a traumatic event. Like the combat veteran, when distressing emotions (also called traumatic stress reactions) continue frequently or for a long period of time (3 months or longer), you could experience symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

The emotions you experience in the aftermath of your child’s illness or injury can feel different from others, depending on experiences in your past. You might feel your heart beat faster every time the phone rings or smell antiseptic hand wash.  Or you might feel anxious during your own doctor’s appointment, or avoid medical tests because of “scanxiety”. Maybe you can’t sleep because you have nightmares about your child’s illness, injury, or treatment.

So what happens now?

In the hours, days, weeks, and even months after your son or daughter’s illness diagnosis or injury, you will likely find you do not feel “like yourself”. You might startle easily or feel more “jumpy”. Maybe you’re having trouble getting to sleep at all or staying asleep. At times, you could find yourself reliving the exact moment your child was injured or when the doctor gave you your child’s diagnosis over and over repeatedly. Perhaps now you find it’s really hard to pay attention at work, or to enjoy your favorite television show.

Why is this happening?

Much like a solider in war, when your child is injured or diagnosed with illness, your life dramatically changes almost instantly. It is very distressing emotionally and is considered a traumatic event. Like the combat veteran, when distressing emotions (also called traumatic stress reactions) continue frequently or for a long period of time (3 months or longer), you could experience symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

The emotions you experience in the aftermath of your child’s illness or injury can feel different from others, depending on experiences in your past. You might feel your heart beat faster every time the phone rings or smell antiseptic hand wash.  Or you might feel anxious during your own doctor’s appointment, or avoid medical tests because of “scanxiety”. Maybe you can’t sleep because you have nightmares about your child’s illness, injury, or treatment.

So what happens now?

In the hours, days, weeks, and even months after your son or daughter’s illness diagnosis or injury, you will likely find you do not feel “like yourself”. You might startle easily or feel more “jumpy”. Maybe you’re having trouble getting to sleep at all or staying asleep. At times, you could find yourself reliving the exact moment your child was injured or when the doctor gave you your child’s diagnosis over and over repeatedly. Perhaps now you find it’s really hard to pay attention at work, or to enjoy your favorite television show.

Why is this happening?

Much like a solider in war, when your child is injured or diagnosed with illness, your life dramatically changes almost instantly. It is very distressing emotionally and is considered a traumatic event. Like the combat veteran, when distressing emotions (also called traumatic stress reactions) continue frequently or for a long period of time (3 months or longer), you could experience symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

The emotions you experience in the aftermath of your child’s illness or injury can feel different from others, depending on experiences in your past. You might feel your heart beat faster every time the phone rings or smell antiseptic hand wash.  Or you might feel anxious during your own doctor’s appointment, or avoid medical tests because of “scanxiety”. Maybe you can’t sleep because you have nightmares about your child’s illness, injury, or treatment.

Why do I feel this way?

Before your child was ill or injured, you and your family had past experiences and beliefs about health and illness. These include things like:

  1. how best to keep your child (and yourself) safe and healthy
  2. your own and your child’s ability to cope with things such as painful treatments
  3. whether different kinds of illness or injury are life-threatening
  4. how an illness or injury could impact your child, family, and future

After diagnosis, these past experiences and beliefs can influence the ways that your child and family cope. Thoughts and beliefs can be helpful in facing the challenges of a child’s illness, and they may also be distressing. Distressing beliefs are not problematic in and of themselves. However they can lead to feelings, behaviors, and ways of relating that become concerning for your child and your family.

For example:

  1. Believing “our dreams for our child’s future have been shattered” may lead to feelings of hopelessness.
  2. Believing “I’m alone in this” or “no one can understand what I’m feeling” may lead to avoiding potential social supports and withdrawal from others.

On the other hand, you and your child may also have helpful or adaptive thoughts and beliefs about your ability to cope, your faith, or your future.

For example:

  1. Believing “laughter will get us through this” may lead to using humor as a coping tool during treatment.
  2. Believing your family will grow stronger during and after treatment.

While it is common to have BOTH distressing and adaptive beliefs about what has happened, often the distressing beliefs feel more overwhelming because they have stronger emotions behind them. This is normal and okay, even if painful. Using learned coping skills, having open conversations, and relying on the support of friends and family can help address these feelings.

What should I look for?

Remember, everyone reacts differently, so you may or may not experience all the signs or symptoms of posttraumatic stress. Or you may or may not experience all at the same time. Being aware can help you take care of yourself and seek professional help if needed.

Symptoms posttraumatic stress include:

  1. Re-living events connected to the diagnosis, also called re-experiencing.
    Example: “To this day, I can’t stand the antiseptic smell of hospitals.”
  2. Staying away from reminders of the illness, also called avoidance.
    Example: “I block it out and try not to think about when I was in the hospital.”
  3. Feeling anxious, jumpy, or being “on-guard”, also called hyper-arousal.
    Example: “I know that doctors say we’re in the clear, but I take my daughter’s temperature every day. I am always afraid something bad will happen.”
  4. Having strong negative thoughts and emotions (fear, guilt, blame, anger, sadness, confusion) or have trouble feeling positive emotions.
    Example: “If only I hadn’t done X or Y, I wouldn’t have gotten sick.”
  5. Experiencing other symptoms, such as developing new fears, feeling “spacey”, empty or numb.
    Example: “Ever since my son was in the hospital, he is terrified to be left alone- he never used to be like that.”
Why are doctor’s visits so stressful for children?

Doctors’ visits, hospitals, and medical clinics may be new experiences for children. They may feel uncertain about them and what will happen. Often doctors’ visits are experienced as scary and stressful. Depending on your child and his/her past experiences and current diagnosis, there are many factors that contribute to this fear, such as:

  1. A specific scary or shocking event including the initial diagnosis
  2. Pain or painful medical experiences
  3. Treatment setbacks
  4. Physical limitations or impairment
  5. Ongoing uncertainty about diagnosis and the future
  1. The hospital sights, sounds, and smells
  2. Separation from parents
  3. Exposure to the distress, pain, or death of other patients
  4. Exposure to reminders of past traumatic medical experiences
  5. Sense of life threat, regardless of the objective prognosis
Parents, in turn, may feel helpless at seeing their child in pain, distressed, hooked up to medical equipment, etc.

 

These factors, sometimes called triggers, can result in a great deal of distress in some children. However, for most children, simple developmentally appropriate support and information will help them cope. Sometimes though, children will have trouble coping, which might lead to traumatic stress reactions or posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

How does my child’s age affect their reactions?

Depending on your child’s age and developmental stage, you may notice different types of reactions to their illness or injury.

  1. Young Children
  2. School-Age Children
  3. Teenagers

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