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Understanding Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in Children

Children can endure great sorrow and even trauma in their lives. For some children, the distress of certain events may be too much to bear. As a result, they may develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Fortunately, there is hope for children who experience trauma. Ask a trusted counselor or healthcare provider for help.

What is PTSD?

Posttraumatic stress disorder may follow a severe trauma. This may be something the child experiences directly. It may also be an event your child sees or hears about indirectly. Even violent movies or TV programs can have a traumatic effect. Symptoms of PTSD often appear a few weeks after the trauma. But sometimes they may occur months, or even years, later.

Symptoms of PTSD in children

If your child has PTSD, they may have:

  • Terrifying nightmares or “flashbacks” about the event. Flashbacks are vivid memories that seem as real as the trauma itself.

  • A fear of people or places connected with the event. Your child may also seem withdrawn and unfeeling.

  • Angry outbursts. Your child also might have trouble sleeping or concentrating. They may seem on edge. They may complain of headaches or other health problems.

  • Reactions to trauma cues that re-trigger the event. Cues include sights, sounds, people, smells, and places that remind the child of the event. They can result in repetitive play and a reenactment of the traumatic event or themes of the traumatic event (such as someone dying).

Treating PTSD

Children with PTSD can be greatly helped by special types of individual and group therapy as well as by certain medicines. A form of therapy called trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy is effective in both individual and group settings for treating PTSD in children. Children with PTSD can benefit from certain other forms of therapy also. Being with other children may make your child feel less alone and will help your child work through their pain. Medicines may help control symptoms such as anxiety, insomnia, and depression linked to PTSD. They may help the child live a more normal life.

What you can do

You can play a large part in your child’s healing process. Accept your child's emotions and encourage your child to share their feelings with you or a trusted professional. Offer your love and support. Find and maintain professional mental health support for your child. If your child's symptoms are interfering with their schoolwork or their friendships, ask school staff for additional support. Recovery may take some time. But don’t lose hope. With help, your child can look forward to a full, happy life.

Children are at risk for PTSD after:

  • A rape or sexual assault

  • A car accident or plane crash

  • Physical or mental abuse

  • Being the victim of or witness to violence, such as riots or wars

  • Natural disasters such as earthquakes or floods

  • The sudden death of a parent or other loved one

Online Medical Reviewer: L Renee Watson MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Marianne Fraser MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Paul Ballas MD
Date Last Reviewed: 12/1/2022
© 2000-2023 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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