Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is the development of certain symptoms that follow a direct or indirect event in which a child was exposed to a traumatic, terrifying event in which physical harm was threatened, seen, or experienced. PTSD can be the result of one traumatic event, or as a result of ongoing traumatic events, and may occur after an unexpected or violent death or injury to a loved one. While many people experience traumatic events in their lifetime, not all of them will go on to develop post-traumatic stress disorder. Many people do have difficulties adjusting and coping after a traumatic event, but with proper care and love, most people are able to successfully recover from PTSD. For some children and teens, though, the symptoms of acute stress disorder become post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s very important to remember that it’s not the objective facts of the trauma, it’s the ways in which your child felt during and after the event.
Traumatic events overwhelm a child or teen’s ability to cope, leaving the child feeling that the world is an unsafe, dangerous, and out-of-control place. The event deeply impacts the child’s thoughts of him or herself and the world, although the memory of the event is deeply encoded and different from normal memories. Rather than simply thinking about the event, the child re-experiences the event, and the pain and fear of reliving the trauma causes the child to fear the memory; not just the event. PTSD has elements of intrusive thoughts, emotional numbing, social withdrawal and isolation, cognitive changes, and hyper-arousal.
Proper treatment following the traumatic event is vital to prevent complications. With proper treatment and support, most children and teens who have PTSD will go on to live happy, productive lives.
Studies have shown that approximately 15 to 43% of girls and 14 to 43% of boys will experience at least one traumatic event. Of these children, 3 to 15% of girls and 1 to 6% of boys will go on to develop post-traumatic stress disorder.
While post-traumatic stress disorder develops as a result of exposure to a traumatic event, some disorders are known to co-occur with PTSD. These may include:
- Childhood anxiety disorders
- Childhood depression
Causes of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Children and Teens
The causes of PTSD will vary based upon the severity of trauma, whether the trauma was repeated, the reaction of caregivers to the trauma, and the child’s proximity to the trauma. Some of the factors that may lead to the development of PTSD after one or more traumatic events include the following:
Genetic: Children who have a first-degree relative who has depression, struggled with PTSD or other mental health disorders are at higher risk for development of PTSD after a trauma. This risk is increased for children and teens who already struggle with depression or anxiety. Additionally, a child’s inborn personality or temperament may increase the likelihood of developing PTSD.
Physical: It’s been suggested that the ways in which a child’s brain regulates the hormones and chemicals in response to stressful situations can lead to the development of PTSD. Females are at a higher risk for developing PTSD than males.
Environmental: The life experiences of your child, including the amount and severity of the trauma can impact the development of PTSD. Generally, the longer-lasting, repeated traumas (especially those involving neglect, physical, sexual, emotional, or mental abuse) are more apt to cause PTSD.
Types of Traumatic Events for PTSD in Children and Teens
Some of the known traumatic events that can lead to the development of post-traumatic stress disorder include (but are not limited to):
- Violent assaults, such as rape or physical attacks
- Car accidents
- Senseless acts of violence (such as school shootings)
- Natural disasters
- Sexual abuse
- Emotional abuse
- Domestic abuse
- Physical abuse
- Threat with a weapon
- Witnessing another go through traumatic events
- Diagnosis of life-threatening illnesses
Symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Children and Teens
Children and adolescents that live through a very severe trauma tend to display the most severe and highest levels of symptoms. Symptom severity may depend upon family support and the child’s proximity to the event. Symptoms of PTSD usually develop within the first 3 months after the traumatic event, but may not surface for months or years later. Some of the symptoms of PTSD are easy to identify, while others may be a challenges to understand.
Common symptoms of PTSD in children and teens may include:
- Behavioral inhibition
- Reckless behaviors
- Reenactment of trauma through play
- Loss of interest in previously-enjoyed activities
- Angry outbursts
- Sleep disturbances
- Complaints of headaches and stomach aches
- Difficulties with physical contact
- Smaller hippocampal volume
- Altered metabolism in areas of the brain involved in perception of threat
- Low basal cortisol levels
- Feeling as though the event is happening all over again
- Altered cognitive functioning
- Increased arousal and hyper-vigilance
- Feeling as though the trauma is happening again
- Trouble concentrating in school
- Negative cognitive development
- Jumbled, out of order recollection of the event
- Emotional numbing
- Avoidance of memories or situations that trigger memories of the event
- Flashbacks of the event
- Intrusive memories of the event
- Nightmares and night terrors
- Fears about death
- Low self-esteem
- Inability to trust others
- Magical thinking – the belief that the child saw signs of the trauma before it occurred
Effects of PTSD in Children and Teens
Many people don’t seek professional help for post-traumatic stress disorder as they may not see the link between the event and their symptoms. Additionally, many people who have PTSD may not want to discuss the event or trauma because it adds to feelings of anxiety and dread. Professional help is needed for a child or teen who has undergone serious traumatic events in order to help them develop the coping skills necessary to resume their daily lives.
Untreated PTSD may result in a number of ill effects that may include:
- Anxiety disorders
- Extreme aggression
- Inability to form bonds with others
- Out-of-place sexual behaviors
- Substance use
- Alcohol use
- Cardiovascular disease
- Pain disorders
- Autoimmune diseases
- Musculoskeletal conditions
- Suicidal thoughts and behaviors
- Borderline personality disorder
- Oppositional defiant disorder
- Conduct disorder