People often think that traumatic experiences are rare in children; however, studies indicate that 7 out of 10 children will be exposed to a shocking or disturbing situation before they reach the age of 16. This may create a “post-traumatic stress disorder” (PTSD) making it difficult to lead a happy, productive life.

The National Center for PTSD reports that child protection services nationwide receive approximately three million reports each year involving 5.5 million children who have been exposed or subjected to traumatic events such as a violent crime, physical and/or sexual abuse, the loss of a loved one, a serious accident or illness, or a natural disaster.

In spite of these numbers, only a fraction of the children who have experienced trauma are actually diagnosed with PTSD. While some are misdiagnosed with general anxiety, depression, or ADHD, many are never diagnosed and treated at all.

PTSD does not present itself the same way in children as it does in adults sometimes making it more difficult to recognize and treat effectively. Here is a snapshot of what it may look like in different age groups:

  • Very young children often do not have the skills to communicate their feelings so they may act out the trauma in play, have separation or stranger anxiety, or become preoccupied with an object (not necessarily related to the trauma). They may also lose a developmental skill such as potty training.
  • School-aged children do not typically have the type of flashbacks as adults following a traumatic event. They may also have better recall of the experience, although it may not be in sequential order. They may also show signs of PTSD in their play such as shooting games, or artwork by drawing a house on fire.
  • Teens and adolescents start to display more of the same signs as adults. However, unlike children or adults they are more likely to exhibit impulsive and/or aggressive behaviors that can sometimes be difficult to manage.

Additional Symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder:

  • Agitation or Irritability
  • Confusion
  • Intense Fear
  • Hypervigilant
  • Angry Outbursts
  • Sad or Depressed
  • Dissociation or Withdrawn
  • Frequent nightmares
  • Worries constantly about death
  • Unable to focus or concentrate
  • Problems falling or staying asleep
  • Frequent headaches or stomachaches
  • Loss of interest in sports or activities
  • Immature behavior such as whining or sucking their thumb

Treatment for PTSD:

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is the most effective form of treatment for children. This can include relaxation techniques, play therapy, psychological first-aid crisis management, and other special treatments as needed. Parents and caregivers are also taught coping skills and how to understand PTSD. Sometimes medication may also be needed to help the child deal with anxiety, depression, or agitation.

If you suspect your child is suffering from PTSD, please contact a qualified professional to make sure they receive a proper diagnosis and treatment as soon as possible.


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