Helping families cope following a traumatic injury

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When a child experiences a traumatic injury it impacts the entire family. Find out how you can manage your own health while caring for your child, their siblings and managing finances and other stress.

Key points

  • It is normal for parents and caregivers to feel different emotions after a child’s traumatic injury, and it is important for you to remember to care for your own physical and emotional needs as well as your child’s needs.
  • Trauma reactions can include feeling anxious, being unable to sleep, experiencing flashbacks and triggers, avoiding thoughts of the accident and feeling socially withdrawn.
  • Your child’s health-care team can help you manage your child’s emotions and answer any questions they may have.
  • Your other children may experience feelings of jealousy and fear or they may act out while your other child is in the hospital. A social worker can help you if necessary.
  • Having a child in the hospital can be both an emotional and financial burden.

Emotional coping for parents and caregivers

It is normal for parents and caregivers to feel a range of emotions when they are at the hospital. You will likely feel worried and upset after your child is injured. You will meet with many health-care professionals during your first few days in hospital, which can be overwhelming. Many parents also have difficulty sleeping and eating during the first few days their child is in hospital. However, it is important that you take care of yourself so that you can take care of your child.

Take care of your physical needs

It is important that you find time to care for your physical needs. Make time to sleep, eat, take a break and have a shower. Some hospitals have spaces where you can access a kitchen area, shower or rest, such as a Ronald McDonald House Family Room.

Take care of your emotional needs

Speak with a friend, family member or professional about how you’re feeling. It is better to express your worries than to keep them inside. It is OK to be scared.


Many parents feel guilt following a child’s traumatic injury and wish they could have done something to prevent it. If the parents were not with their child when the injury happened, they wish they had been there. Some parents feel guilty when they see their child in pain. It is important to talk about these feelings and to remember that accidents do happen, even with the most attentive parents.

Sometimes, parents avoid their emotions by denying the seriousness of their child’s injuries, the recovery time, or that injuries may be permanent. Denial may help you get over the initial shock of the injury and to maintain hope; however, ongoing denial will prevent you from coming to terms with the injuries and adjusting to a potentially new way of daily living.

Trauma reactions

It is normal for your body to have a trauma reaction when something scary happens to someone you love. Trauma reactions can come in different forms:

  • Feeling anxious/jumpy
  • Not being able to sleep
  • Having flashbacks of the accident
  • Experiencing triggers including sights or sounds that remind you of what happened
  • Avoiding thinking or feeling about the injury
  • Feeling socially withdrawn or dazed

Usually, these feelings improve over time. If you continue to experience these symptoms for weeks after the injury, it’s important that you speak with a professional about them.

It is important to remember that each person copes in their own way. They express their feelings in different ways and with different intensity. There is no one 'correct' way to cope.

Emotional coping for patients

It is normal for your child to experience many different feelings after a traumatic injury, such as anger, helplessness, fear, anxiety, hope, guilt and shock. It is also possible for your child to have a trauma reaction. Children’s reactions appear in all different ways, and it may be difficult to recognize that your child is having a trauma reaction.

When your child is having a trauma reaction they may experience the following:

  • Hyperactivity
  • Nightmares, or fear of going to sleep or sleeping alone
  • Regressive behaviours (thumb sucking, baby talk, bed-wetting)
  • Worry about parent leaving
  • Stomach aches and headaches
  • Personality changes
  • Difficulties in school
  • Fear of loss or obsession with death/dying

Talk to a member of your child’s health-care team that can help your child cope with these feelings. It is especially important to talk with a health-care professional if the symptoms last longer than a few weeks after the injury.

Answering your child’s questions

It can be hard to know how to answer your child’s questions around their injuries. You may feel intimated by the subject matter and you may not know how much information is appropriate to give them. Here are a few basic tips:

  • It’s OK to say, 'I don’t know'. It’s better to tell your child that you don’t know the answer than it is to guess or make something up. Tell your child that you don’t know, but you can find out together.
  • It’s OK to speak about the injury in front of your child. This tells them that it’s OK to talk about it and that it’s not a secret.
  • Give your child clear concise language around their injury so that they can talk about it in their own words. For example, ‘I got into a car accident and I broke my leg and have a cut on my spleen. My spleen is in my tummy. I need to stay still so that it will heal’.
  • If you are not sure what you can say, talk to your child’s health-care team.


Siblings can also experience a range of emotions when their brother or sister gets hurt.


Your instinct as parents may be to exclude and protect siblings, but for their own healing it is important to include siblings as much as possible. When siblings are excluded, they will often imagine things are worse than they are. If age appropriate, take a picture of your injured child and explain the injuries and medical equipment to siblings before they visit. Try to find other ways for siblings to remain connected throughout hospitalization, such as video or phone calls, writing letters and drawing pictures. You can ask your social worker or child life specialist for help with this.


Siblings can begin to feel jealous when their brother or sister is receiving so much attention. Try to continue to spend time with your other children. Even if it’s just for a few minutes on the phone, it’s important to let them know that you’re still thinking of them.


Siblings may feel scared that they will also experience an injury. It is important to talk to your children about these fears and for them to know that you are there to listen. You can reassure them that you will try your best to keep them safe, but that injuries do happen and that it is nobody’s fault.

Acting out

Your other children may act out or misbehave throughout the hospitalization or when you are home. This is their way of telling you that they want more attention, or that they have missed you. Reassure them that you still care about them and that there are other ways to get your attention. You may also hear from your child’s teacher that they are displaying different behaviours at school. It may be a good idea to reach out to your school social worker to talk about strategies to help curb the behaviours.

Managing family and friends

Following your child’s injury there may be many people in your community who want to help and support you. Try to think of ways that these people can be helpful to you right now- whether that’s picking-up your other children from school, doing yard work or making meals. Sometimes the stress of coordinating the help and responding to well-wishers can seem overwhelming. Appoint a spokesperson (friend or family member) to keep these people updated and to coordinate the offers of help. Retelling your story and updating people can be exhausting; you need to keep your energy up to care for your child.

Managing media

Sometimes, following a high-profile injury, media is alerted of the situation. You may find that somehow media has found out your personal information on social media or from neighbours. If you are contacted by media, please speak to a member of your child’s health-care team. They can connect you to the hospital’s public affairs department , who will be able to protect your privacy and manage media requests so that you can focus on your child. The hospital will not release any information without your consent to protect confidentiality.

Managing police

In some cases, police may be involved following your child’s injuries. They typically become involved after motor vehicle accidents and acts of violence. It is important that you know your and your child’s rights. Find out if your hospital has a pro-bono lawyer you can speak with or talk to your child’s social worker if you have questions. Write down the jurisdiction (area) of police that is involved, as well as the contact information of the investigating officer. You may also have access to victim services. Victim services is an organization affiliated with the police that provides support to families in crisis.


Having a child in the hospital, and then having a child recovering at home can cause a financial strain on families. Speak with your child’s social worker to find out if there are any leaves of absence that you might be eligible for. You can also speak with your employer about any benefits that you may have. If your child was injured in an automobile accident it is critical that you apply for accident benefits, as these benefits can offset many of the costs of being in the hospital.

Last updated: January 19th 2021