Protecting Children from Depression after Car Accidents

Play therapy and education can help

Girl looking out window
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When children walk away from car accidents uninjured, parents consider themselves lucky but may overlook the psychological effects of car wrecks, such as depression. Just as the physical effects of a car accident can be long lasting, so too can the mental ones. It's natural for a child to take a while to seem back to normal after such an event, but depression after a car accident is a possibility for some.

Being aware of methods to prevent depression in children following car accidents can give parents the comfort that they're doing all they can.

Car Accidents Are Traumatic for Kids

Some research has shown that a car accident can be especially traumatic for children. Approximately 15 to 25 percent of children involved in car accidents develop symptoms of depression even months after the accident.

A study published in The Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health found that preadolescent children who received a single psychological intervention seven to 10 days after a car accident developed less depressive symptoms and behavioral problems at two- and six-month follow-ups than those who did not receive the intervention. The intervention, which included one parent, involved reconstructing the accident using drawings and toys, and education about the psychological effects of a traumatic event.

The authors of this study concluded that an early intervention is useful in protecting preadolescent children against developing depression and behavior problems as a result of a car accident. However, it was not effective for adolescents, who may require more frequent interventions.

Given these findings, it is important to get help for your child after a traumatic event, like a car accident, and not wait until your child shows signs of depression.

Some Kids More at Risk

According to Dr. Avshalom Caspi and colleagues, who published a study in Science, some children are more prone to depression as a result of stressful life events. Additionally, children with past episodes of depression are at a higher risk for developing depression again. For these children, it may be especially important to seek early treatment after an accident or other traumatic event.

After a physician has ruled out any physical injuries in your child, don't be afraid to ask that an on-duty psychologist, psychiatrist or social worker speak with your child. If circumstances prevent an immediate consultation, make an appointment to come back and see someone in the next week. If your child already sees a mental health professional, consult with that person to let them know about the accident.

Remember that your child has just gone through a traumatic event and will likely require more attention and reassurance from you for a while. Your child may be scared to get in a car again or be alone.

Be sure to talk to your child about what happened and don't minimize her fears. However, if you notice that her symptoms worsen, change or last longer than a few weeks, consult with a physician or mental health profession.

Depression Symptoms to Keep an Eye Out For

Symptoms of depression in children may include:

If you notice any symptoms of depression or other unexplained behaviors in your child, bring them to the attention of a physician or mental health professional. Depression in children should be diagnosed and treated early for the best chance at recovery.

Sources:

Avshalom Caspi, Karen Sugden, Terrie E. Moffitt, Alan Taylor, Ian W. Craig, HonaLee Harrington, Joseph McClay, Jonathan Mill, Judy Martin, Anthony Braithwaite, Richie Poulton. "Influence of Life Stress on Depression: Moderation by a Polymorphism in the 5-HTT Gene." Science July 18, 2003 301: 386-389.

Daniel Zehnder, Martin Meuli, Markus A Landolt. "Effectiveness of a Single-Session EarlyPsychological Intervention For Children After Road Traffic Accidents: A Randomised Controlled Trial." Journal of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health, February 10, 2010. 4(7)

What are the Signs and Symptoms of Depression? National Institute on Mental Health. Accessed: May 30, 2010. 

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