Mighty Blog

Behavior changes in kids related to trauma and stress

The death of George Floyd and the resulting demonstrations in Minnesota and around the world are having a profound effect on our community. While we are dealing with this community trauma, we are also in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. These are two huge events in our lives, and parents may wonder: Is this impacting my kids?

Dr. Gigi Chawla, chief of general pediatrics at Children’s Minnesota, shares how these monumental events may affect kids and what parents should look out for.

How are kids impacted by traumatic events?

Momentous events can have a profound effect on kids especially as they are viewed over and over again in the media. Children may worry about their family members or friends who are similar to those affected by recent events – for example, George Floyd’s death may have them worrying about their loved ones’ safety COVID-19 may cause them worry about their grandparents as it’s affecting older generations more.

Signs of trauma or stress

Children may exhibit any of the following behavior changes during this time:

Sleep disturbances

Children may have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep or waking up. They may also begin to experience new or more frequent nightmares. They may want to share your bed, be close to you, and not sleep alone.

Physical complaints

Parents may notice that their kids complain of not feeling well and that they are experiencing headaches, stomach pains, nausea or diarrhea, or even fatigue or restlessness.

Behavior changes

Parents should also look for signs that their child is regressing. They may become impatient, show new behaviors, or have temper tantrums. Children may focus on things within their control to control more. Teens may begin to show patterns of withdrawal or may turn to substances to cope with this trauma.

Emotional changes

Children may experience sadness, depression or anxiety. Some may even have thoughts of suicide or self-harm.

What should parents do if their child’s behavior changes?

First recognize that their children may be perceiving their parents’ emotions and trauma, and expressing it as behavior changes. Take a step back and ask why these behavior changes may be occurring and how you may be contributing to them. Also take some time to think about the loss of control children may feel. That perspective can then help you with next steps for change and can indicate that parents should seek help themselves first.

Young children

Parents can use positive reinforcement for very young children who may not yet have the words to describe their feelings. Try to point out desired behavior and praise their successes. Deterring undesirable behavior can sometimes be as simple as ignoring it, as long as the behavior is not dangerous. Behavior Checker is an excellent tool to give you some quick tips and insights into making changes happen.

Adolescents and teenagers

Help adolescents and teenagers hope and identify actions they can take to help others impacted by recent events. They could join a peaceful protest, volunteer to help clean up a neighborhood or find a way to support frontline health care workers, such as making cloth face masks to donate.

Kaitlyn Kamleiter