Tips &

Tips &

The trauma of being lost

November 2022
Janthea Brigden
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My heart was pounding so much that I thought I might die! My three-year-old daughter had become separated from us in a large crowd in La Rochelle, France. My brain was fixated on the busy road ahead and the horrifying thought that she might wander onto it and be hit by a car. I was in total ‘freeze’ mode. I couldn’t speak. It was hard to breathe. I couldn’t process what my husband was saying to me, I just needed to get to the road and that’s where I ran.

Once I realised that she was not in that direction, I felt a huge surge of relief only to be followed by another wave of panic about where she actually was!

The incident ended happily with my husband finding her surrounded by concerned French people enquiring her name and debating what to do with her.

As typically happens, we adults had walked in one direction with her following and then changed our minds and turned in the other direction. At a low height, one pair of jeans looks very much like another and when crowds are on the move, separation is easy!

The after-effects of separation

Nipperbout often runs Lost Child Points at events and it is interesting to see the reactions of both parents and children when they are reunited.

Emotions range wildly. Some are in a ‘fight’ response – they are angry and blame each other, sometimes even attempting to hit the other person. Some are in ‘flight’ mode – they are overwhelmed with embarrassment and just want to leave. While others ‘freeze’ – they say virtually nothing but go through the motions of signing and ID checking in a state of shock.

I have often contacted people that I am concerned about after the event, to make sure they are okay. I have been told of similar after-effects to those that my daughter and myself experienced all those years ago.

As a result, Nipperbout has produced a handout to give to parents advising them of the kinds of after-reactions they and their child may have after the experience of being lost.

These are four of the post-trauma symptoms you and your child may experience after becoming separated unintentionally (and why they happen).

1. A long sleep

Falling asleep for over 12 hours is not an uncommon response to trauma. For some people shock induces a total shutdown of the body and completely exhausts it, making it necessary to recoup with a long sleep. Sleep is an excellent healer so it’s best not to wake the person up, just let them sleep and heal naturally.

2. Nightmares

Waking in the night with nightmares related to the experience is common after any kind of trauma. The brain replays the experience in different formats with different outcomes (often a negative outcome) as we come to terms with ‘what might have been’.

If your child has nightmares about the experience, sit and talk the dream through with them. Talking about nightmares brings them into perspective and helps to identify them as part of the healing process our brains go through after trauma. If it’s you, the adult, having nightmares, then talking it through with another adult can really help.

3. Separation anxiety

You may find that you, or your child, become more anxious about being apart. Again, this is a self-protective mechanism and this will pass more swiftly if it’s acknowledged and accepted, rather than ridiculed or dismissed.

A little bit of extra time and support to overcome this anxiety now, will save it from becoming a real problem later in life. Secure attachment as a child has many benefits for the developing adult, such as lower stress, healthier emotional regulation and higher self-esteem.

4. Behaviour changes.

You may notice that the anxiety of the experience causes you or your child to become more aggressive and argumentative in certain situations, particularly when attending events where you could become separated again. This is just the brain's way of trying to protect you through triggering the ‘fight’ response.

Again, providing reassurance and compassion is the optimum way to change the behaviour. Discussing the behaviour change and relating it to the “lost” experience may help. Sometimes talking through trauma repeatedly soon after the event, provided it is done supportively and without judgement, can reduce the long-term impact.

Have you ever been separated from your child? How did you feel afterwards? Did you react in any of these ways?