Violence at Home Can Trigger Symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Children

From the WebMD Archives

Jan. 6, 2000 (Lake Worth, Fla.) -- Children from violent homes may have symptoms that are associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) whether or not they have been exposed to a traumatic event outside of the home, such as war or natural disaster, according to Harvard researchers.

"Kids are very deeply affected by displays of violence and serious discord in the home to such a degree that it can cause post-traumatic stress," Laura Ann McCloskey, co-researcher of the study, tells WebMD. The study shows that 15% of 337 children exhibited the symptom criteria for PTSD. Of that 15%, 83% came from a violent home. The study is published in the January issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

The study also found that children who were targets of violence, whether they are from violent homes or not, exhibited more symptoms of PTSD. "It's not surprising that driving past a car accident didn't lead to PTSD, but being in one would," says McCloskey, an associate professor of maternal and child health at the Harvard School of Public Health.

She says it is important that parents be aware that if their children are targets of violence or are involved in an accident, they could be exhibiting PTSD and also many other psychological problems. The research indicated a very high rate of overlap between the PTSD symptoms and meeting the clinical cutoff for depression, anxiety disorder, phobias, and ADHD, she says.

It's really important when you go to seek help for that child to recognize and make the clinician recognize to what degree the environment could be causing this." Many of the events the children reported on the study, they had not told their parents about. "They were showing signs of distress, but the parents had no clue they had witnessed a gang rape [for example]," she said.

H. Allen Handford, MD, who was not connected with the study, says that even very young babies who witness violence in the home are affected by it. He says that when these babies get older, say 3-5 years old, they will begin to re-enact what they observed. "The re-enactment [is one of the] symptoms of PTSD, so we tend to [make the diagnosis of PTSD] particularly when we're seeing re-enactments like that," he tells WebMD. Handford is chief of the division of child and adolescent psychiatry at the Penn State University M.S. Hershey Medical Center.

Other symptoms that may point to PTSD are repeated nightmares that have no specific content; distress at being exposed to things that remind the patient of the traumatic event, accompanied by shaking or sweating; and avoidance of these reminders.

McCloskey and her colleagues studied children living in the Southwest. Those selected were children of battered women and had been exposed to severe and chronic acts of violence in the home. "We interviewed all of the children, including a comparison group or control group who weren't exposed to domestic violence about stressful and traumatic events that had occurred to them recently," she explains.

The children were between the ages of 6 and 12. They were asked to tell about something that scared them to the point they feared they or someone else would get hurt. Mothers were also interviewed and both were given questionnaires about other psychiatric symptoms.

The traumatic events reported were domestic violence (40%), violent crime (16%), accidents (36%), and death or illness of a family member or close friend (8%). The accidents included 61% automobile and 39% drowning. Eighty-seven percent of the children reporting traumatic events were witnesses only, 10% were targets, and 3% were both.

According to McCloskey, understanding the child's environment as well as a specific cause of the post traumatic stress will help the child fully recover.

Vital Information:

  • Children who are from violent homes or who are the target of violence may exhibit symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
  • Parents should try to be aware if their children are targets or witnesses of violence, because often, the children will not tell their parents.
  • Even young babies who witness violence can be affected, and will begin to re-enact what they observed when they get older.