Behavior Q&A: Post-Trauma Nightmares

Q. My 5-year-old daughter witnessed a bad car accident and has been having trouble sleeping for the last two weeks. What should I do?

A. "Give her a sense of security and normalcy by keeping her daily routines the same -- including her bedtime and wake-up time," says Hilda Campbell, Ph.D., a pediatric psychologist and trauma specialist at Children's Hospital and Regional Medical Center, in Seattle. You can add some soothing steps at night -- giving her a glass of warm milk or reading an extra book to help her fall asleep. "Kids this age have a limited ability to think in abstract terms, so it's unlikely that your daughter even connects her sleeplessness with the accident," Dr. Campbell points out.

In addition, 5-year-olds are still developing their verbal skills, so it may be difficult for her to identify and articulate her emotions. Follow her lead in talking about the event. Answer honestly in an age-appropriate way, while not overwhelming her with too much information.

Let her know that as her parents, it's your job to keep her protected and that you and her father try to drive safely. Also, make sure she's always buckled into her car seat securely.

Watch for other symptoms of stress -- irritability, separation anxiety, fear of cars, or regressive behavior such as wetting the bed. If her symptoms worsen or continue for longer than a month, or if you feel she's just not herself, ask your pediatrician for a referral to a mental-health professional to rule out post-traumatic stress disorder.

Copyright© 2004. Reprinted with permission from the August 2004 issue of Parents magazine.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.

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