Trauma and PTSD in Children

June is PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) Awareness Month. PTSD used to be called “shell shock” or “battle fatigue” because it often affected war veterans. However, PTSD can happen to anyone at any age.

In general, kids are resilient and have the capacity to quickly recover from traumatic events. Some children may experience incredibly stressful events that impact how they think and feel with long-term impacts.

Examples of events that could cause PTSD:

  • Physical, sexual, emotional maltreatment
  • Being a victim or witness to violence/crime
  • Serious illness or death of a close family member/friend
  • Natural or manmade disasters like hurricanes, floods, wildfires, tornadoes
  • Severe car accidents
  • Medical conditions, surgeries, procedures, hospitalizations
  • Homelessness, food insecurity

Children can experience trauma directly or witness it happening to someone else, including in the media or online. If children develop symptoms lasting over one month and these become upsetting or interfere with their relationships and activities, they may be diagnosed with PTSD.

What is PTSD in Children

PTSD occurs as a response to chemical changes in the brain after exposure to threatening events. It can lead to an overly sensitive fight or flight response, mental and physical distress.

National Center for PTSD studies reveal up to 43% of children go through at least one trauma. Of these children, 3% to 15% of girls and 1% to 6% of boys develop PTSD. Anyone experiencing a traumatic event can show symptoms of PTSD.

If symptoms linger, a mental health professional may diagnose PTSD or a trauma-related disorder. Common PTSD symptoms in children include:

  • Reliving the event over and over in thought/play
  • Nightmares/sleep problems
  • Becoming upset with memories of the event
  • Lack of positive emotions
  • Intense ongoing fear or sadness
  • Irritability/angry outbursts
  • Constantly looking for threats
  • Being easily startled
  • Acting helpless, hopeless, withdrawn
  • Denial about the event, feeling numb, avoiding places, people, things associated with the event

Some people with PTSD may experience depression and panic attacks with symptoms like agitation, dizziness, racing heart, rapid breathing, headaches and excitability. Symptoms in children may be confused with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

PTSD in teens often manifests as aggressive or irritable behavior. Teens may engage in risky activities like drug or alcohol use. They may be reluctant to talk about their feelings.

Get professional help immediately if you have concerns that a child has thoughts of self-harm. Thoughts of suicide are serious at any age and should be treated right away.

How Can Parents/Caregivers Help?

The National Center for PTSD offers the following suggestions to help children:

After the trauma, it’s important for parents to offer support. Keep schedules and lives as routine as possible, including not allowing a child to take off too much time from school or activities.

Some children may regress to a previous stage of development. They may want to sleep with the lights on or with a stuffed animal. Don’t criticize this behavior as it helps them cope.

PTSD can make children feel powerless. Parents can help build self-confidence by encouraging children to make everyday decisions, demonstrating that they have control over some parts of their lives. It can be as simple as choosing an activity, deciding what to eat, or picking out clothes.

Don’t force the issue. Children will talk about the trauma when they’re ready. Praise them for being strong when they do talk about it. Some kids may prefer to draw or write about their experiences. Let them know that their feelings are typical and that the event was not their fault.

How is PTSD in Children Treated?

Your child’s physician can connect you with local resources for therapy from psychologists, psychiatrists, licensed clinical social workers, licensed professional counselors, licensed trauma professionals or bereavement specialists.

If a diagnosis is made, these professionals will work to make the child feel safe by getting support from parents, friends, family, school, and try to minimize the chance of additional trauma.

Play therapy, where children can speak, draw, play or write about the stressful event, can be done with the child or family.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy is highly effective for children and adolescents who develop PTSD. This therapy teaches ways to replace negative, unhelpful thoughts and feelings with more positive thinking. Behavioral strategies can be used at the child’s own pace to help desensitize them to the traumatic parts of what happened.

In some cases, medication may also be used to decrease symptoms. It can help children with PTSD cope with school and other daily activities while being treated.

PTSD can be treated to allow children and teens to live a healthy and happy life. By being attentive and identifying the problem, parents, caregivers and professionals can help children to move from victim to survivor.

About the Author

Woman with brown hair and glasses smiling - Dr. Sandra MillsDr. Sandra Mills is a pediatric psychologist for Lee Health Behavioral Health Pediatrics and also a former PTSD/SUD Psychologist with the VA, the US Air Force and in private practice.