Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in Children

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in Children
It’s a parent’s worst nightmare. One of your children suffers a horribly traumatic or terrifying event. While parents do all they can to help, sometimes signs that outside intervention may be needed go unnoticed. Unfortunately, many parents and caregivers do not realize that when certain behaviors in children are sudden or ongoing, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can be the reason.

Although many of us associate PTSD to the psychological trauma suffered in combat during times of war, PTSD can also affect children from a very young age. In some cases, such as sexual abuse, the child will keep the traumatic event triggering the severe anxiety a secret. For this reason, parents and other responsible adults should educate themselves on the symptoms as well as the causes and treatment of PTSD. Here are some of the basics:

What are the Causes?
According to the US Department of Veterans Affairs, Posttraumatic Stress Disorder is “An anxiety disorder that can occur after you have been through a traumatic event. ...During this type of event, you think that your life or others’ lives are in danger. You may feel afraid or feel that you have no control over what is happening.”

If the feelings associated with the event do not dissipate or if they actually intensify, changes in the brain may be occurring. The result of these changes is the development of PTSD. Children are as susceptible to the same overwhelming anxiety and inability to cope with trauma as adults.

Some causes include: living through physically harmful or violent events, sexual abuse, natural disasters, witnessing violence (including domestic violence), peer suicide, car accidents, school shootings, and fires.

Parents’ Most Important Action- Be attentive to your child’s behavioral changes. Do not disregard or down play what may constitute trauma in a child’s life. Events an adult may cope with easily may be overwhelming to a child.

What are the Symptoms?

Parents should especially be aware that PTSD symptoms can be immediate, but they can also begin months or years later. So it’s important to get help for the child as soon as symptoms develop, even if the traumatic event is no longer current. In addition, seek help for siblings who also show symptoms, even if they experienced the event secondhand. For instance, witnessing a brother or sister in a near death situation or experiencing the aftermath of the actual incident.

Symptoms may include: trouble sleeping, trouble using bathroom/wetting the bed, new and unexplained anxiety, developing impulsive and aggressive behavior, acting out trauma through play (ex. shooting trauma = gun games), trouble concentrating, incorrectly sequencing trauma events, unable to remember or talk about event, avoidance behavior (avoid friends, places and favorite activities), jitteriness, substance abuse and nightmares.

Parents’ Most Important Action: Take the symptoms seriously. Even though these warning signs are not only associated with the brain altering PTSD, they are still indicators that the child is having a difficult time coping with events in their life. Vigilant parents and other responsible adults should still seek help for the child.

What are the Treatments?

While the symptoms of PTSD may go away on their own, they also may have long lasting affects which follow children into adulthood. The inability to cope with anxiety can resurface with other lesser traumatic experiences causing problems in relationships, employment and general stability.

For children, the most *effective treatment is Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT). This includes a trauma-focused therapy used to lessen the worry and stress as well as change untrue beliefs about the trauma. This type of therapy also includes training for parents and caregivers to help the children.

Other treatments include: play therapy (games, drawings), Psychological First Aid (teaches coping skills) and other individualized therapy.

Parents’ Most Important Action: Seek treatment and provide support for the child. For some parents, therapy comes with a stigma attached. However, the truth is all of us could use a little help handling stress and we owe it to our loved ones to make sure they get it.

*US Dept. of Veterans Affair recommendation

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