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What to Know About PTSD in Children

Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on March 12, 2021

PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) is a mental health problem that can be quite hard for children to deal with. It may cause depression, anxiety, or even lead to substance abuse.

It is crucial to learn all you can about PTSD if you have a child suffering from this condition. This will really help you understand and give them the care they need.

What is PTSD in Children?

Post-traumatic stress disorder may happen when a child goes through very stressful events. Normally, children will recover quickly from stress. But, if they continue showing symptoms for over a month, they may have post-traumatic stress disorder. This can happen after experiencing trauma from injury, death or threatened death of a loved one, or violence.

Other events that cause PTSD include:

  • Witnessing or being a victim of violence or crime
  • Disasters, either natural (like floods) or man-made (like a fire or massacre)
  • Physical, emotional, or sexual maltreatment
  • A car accident
  • Serious illness of a family member or close friend

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Symptoms of PTSD. Post-traumatic stress may negatively affect your child’s relationships and lifestyle. Some symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in children include:

  • Sleeplessness and nightmares
  • Lacking positive emotions and thoughts
  • Getting upset when they are reminded of the trauma
  • Reliving the traumatic event over and over while playing or in thought
  • Angry outbursts and irritability
  • Constant sadness or intense ongoing fear
  • Hopelessness and acting helpless or withdrawn
  • Getting startled easily
  • Denial about the traumatic event ever happening
  • Avoiding people or places associated with the traumatic event

You should take care when observing a child showing signs of PTSD. A child acting restless and having issues paying attention or staying organized can be confused with having attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

When to call your doctor. If your child has experienced a traumatic event, you should call your doctor when:

  • Your child’s behavior alarms friends, family members, or even teachers
  • They start showing extreme depression, anxiety, fear, or anger toward themself and other people
  • Your child has not been eating or sleeping enough for three or more days consecutively
  • They feel or act out of control
  • They experience hallucinations (seeing or hearing things others can't hear)

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Here are some tips for caring and supporting a child with PTSD:

  • Be understanding, supportive, and loving, and give your child time to adjust.
  • Try not to treat the child differently or change their schedule too much.
  • Allow your child to talk about the event when they are ready and in their own way (writing, drawing). Encourage and acknowledge them for being strong enough to go through the traumatic event.
  • Help your child build self-confidence by letting them make decisions that involve them, if they're old enough. Reassure them that what they are feeling is normal and not "crazy."
  • Avoid criticizing or punishing regressive behavior. If they have been through severe stress, you should be understanding if your child prefers sleeping with the lights on or taking their favorite stuffed animal to bed.
  • In some cases, involving a traumatized child in a support group for trauma survivors might be helpful.
  • Reassure them that the traumatic event is not their fault and encourage them to talk about feelings of guilt.
  • Consult with a professional if your child expresses thoughts of self-harm or suicide.
  • Keep in touch with your child’s teachers or other caretakers.

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The difference between PTSD in kids and PTSD in adults. PTSD in adults happens the same way it does in kids. The causes and symptoms are the same. However, adults are able to talk about their feelings and experiences more than kids.

Kids with PTSD are also more likely to physically react (like screaming) to feelings of fear or anxiety than adults.  This is because children have a harder time realizing that the traumatic event is not happening again.

Treatment of PTSD in Children

The treatment of PTSD in children usually depends on the nature of the traumatic event, its timing, and how much the child was exposed. Some children may find it hard to recover from a traumatic event even with the help and support of family or friends. Seek the help of a professional trained to treat evidence-based trauma.

Treatment options for PTSD in children include:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy: This is a behavioral strategy that helps to replace unhelpful or negative thoughts with positive ones.
  • Play therapy: This type of therapy helps to treat the younger children who are unable to deal with trauma directly.
  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR): This method can be used on people of all ages. The treatment works by combining cognitive therapy and directed eye movements.
  • Medications: Your doctor may prescribe some medication to treat severe symptoms of anxiety and depression. When these symptoms go away, medication stops and your child will go to therapy until they have made a full recovery. 

Prevention of PTSD in Children

Prevention of PTSD mainly involves avoiding situations that may cause severe stress to your kid. You can lessen the risks of trauma by avoiding violence and maltreatment and by lessening the damage of unavoidable disasters on the child.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

Boston Children's Hospital: "Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Symptoms & Causes."

Centers for Disease Control and Treatment: "Post-traumatic Stress Disorder in Children."

KidsHealth: "Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)."

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration: "Recognizing and Treating Child Traumatic Stress."

Stanford Children's Health: "Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in Children."

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