Parent Injury Can Cause Stress for a Child

June 19, 2014

Nearly two decades ago our team was planning a follow-up study with parents of injured children treated in the Emergency Department. In the very first phone interview for the study, I spoke with the mother of a teenager injured in a traffic crash. She was very happy to answer our questions about her son’s recovery but quickly added, “You should be asking about me! My son is doing well now. I am a mess.” She went on to describe feeling worried and afraid every time her son left the house, even though she knew he was not in real danger. She also still struggled with getting ‘back to normal’ after his injury. This mother’s voice was crucial. She reminded us of the importance of asking about a parent’s own responses to a child’s injury. We quickly changed our study protocol and have since included parents in most of our studies. The research evidence is clear: Parents are at least as likely as their injured children to be psychologically impacted by the event. But what happens to the child when it is the parent who is injured?

A new study from our colleagues at the University of Washington highlights the interconnection between a parent and child experience of injury in a new way. They examined the impact of a parent’s injury on the child. The investigators enrolled families receiving emergency medical care for trauma in which both a parent and child were injured, families in which only the child or only the parent was injured, and families in which neither had a significant injury. According to the study, children of injured parents fared worse in terms of posttraumatic stress symptoms and health-related quality of life than children of uninjured parents. Even uninjured children reported posttraumatic stress symptoms when their parents were injured.  

For practitioners, these findings highlight the need for trauma-informed care of families when a parent is injured. As a simple step in this direction, healthcare professionals treating injured adults can ask: “Do you have children at home? How are they faring since you were hurt?” At a primary care follow-up visit, they can ask: “How are your children doing?” and then provide brief guidance or a referral if there are concerns. These small steps could go a long way in helping families recover well. 

If we look only at the impact of injury on the individual child or adult, we may underestimate the overall burden of injury for families, and by extension, for workplaces and insurers. This new study shows how much we still have to discover about how families respond to injury and trauma. An ongoing line of research by our CIRP@CHOP team is advancing the science in this area by taking a more detailed look at the interactions between parents and children during the injury recovery process. This research will help us continue to provide evidence-based guidance to parents about specific ways they can help their children cope with a challenging injury to promote recovery.