As parents, your number one concern has always been to nurture your children and keep them safe in every way you can. But no matter how hard we try, there are always circumstances outside of our control that can lead to unexpected harm. Car accidents are one of those unfortunately-too-common events that can create serious trauma for a family, no matter how well-prepared you are.
It’s easy to find ways to be as safe and prepared as possible beforehand, and that’s important as well. Seat belts and car seats save lives, and you should always carefully follow directions for those and other safety devices, as it’s easy to misuse something without knowing. Rear-facing car seats have been proven to be very effective in car crashes, even when you’re struck from behind.
But even with all of these safety measures, things can still go wrong, and accidents can be a very intense, jarring experience, especially for children. Even car crashes with minimal physical harm have the potential to leave a lasting impression on your children, and it’s important that you learn how to recognize these effects and get your children the support they need. Your first priority after a crash is your child’s physical health. After that you can focus on their mental and emotional well-being.
Health Right After the Crash
The first thing you do when you find yourself in a car crash should be to check your own health and that of everyone in your car. If your child is conscious, alert and seemingly unharmed, you should comfort them, assure them everything will be all right, and then take care of the standard post-accident tasks and procedures. Otherwise the child’s health becomes the priority and you can call 911 immediately. Try to lead by example after the accident and be compassionate but calm and collected. This in itself is reassuring to your children, and if you’re obviously afraid or upset, they may become more afraid as well.
Either way, when you call 911 to report the accident you can mention concerns you may have so that they can check your child at the scene. Even if you get briefly checked over by a medical professional at the scene, however, you should consider taking your family to a clinic or the hospital for a thorough post-accident exam, preferably the same day. It often takes a few days for victims to feel the full effects of an accident on their own, and a doctor can better assess the situation.
Remember to continue reassuring your children throughout this process, and try to make time while waiting between things at the crash site and at the hospital for them to be speaking and processing their experience of the crash. This is something important to do in the days and weeks following the crash as well. Try to be keenly aware of what they are specifically going through and what might be new to them. “Any sort of hospitalization, especially after the trauma of a car crash, can be traumatic for a child who hasn’t experienced that before,” says George Sink Jr., a car accident lawyer in South Carolina. “That’s one way that the physical and emotional injury from a car accident can end up becoming surprisingly extensive.” Even simple, routine medical procedures you might be used to can be stressful and scary for children who have not experienced it before.
The Long-Term Recovery
Children depend on routines and regular structure on their lives. A car accident and any kind of follow-up medical care can be huge, unexpected interruptions in that routine. It’s natural for there to be some kinds of psychological consequences as a result of such an event, but your child should fully return to normal given patience, time, and compassion.
The best thing you can do is listen to your child when they want to talk, reassure them that everything is okay, and help them get back into normal routines. Watch out for changes in behavior or sudden problems or regressions and be patient with these disruptions. Hold to your regular expectations for behavior and don’t excuse these outbursts, but don’t overreact. Don’t talk about your own fears with your children either. They need confidence and stability from you, not uncertainty or over-protective anxiety. Most children who act out or struggle after an accident move on within days or weeks, but some may take much longer. Don’t be afraid to seek professional help from a therapist to help your children cope and process these events.