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Understanding Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in Children

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a series of symptoms that happen after a distressing event. A child may have anxiety, anger, and bad dreams. But PTSD can be treated. Working with a counselor and other healthcare providers will help your child. Recovery may take time. But your child can feel better.

Who is at risk for PTSD?

PTSD may follow a severe trauma. It may be something the child experiences. Or it may be an event the child sees or hears about. Even violent movies or TV shows can cause trauma.

A child is at risk for PTSD after any of these:

  • A rape or sexual assault

  • A car accident or plane crash

  • Physical or mental abuse

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

  • Natural disasters such as earthquakes or floods

  • The sudden death of a parent or other loved one

Symptoms of PTSD in children

Symptoms of PTSD often appear a few weeks after the trauma. But sometimes they may occur months or years later. A child with PTSD may have:

  • Bad dreams about the event

  • Vivid memories of the event that seem real (flashbacks)

  • A fear of people or places connected with the event

  • Reactions to things that remind them of the event the event (trauma cues) such as sights, sounds, people, smells, and places

And they may:

  • Seem withdrawn and unfeeling

  • Be nervous

  • Have angry outbursts

  • Have trouble sleeping or focusing

  • Have headaches or other health problems

  • Reenact the event over and over in play

Treating PTSD

PTSD in a child can be treated with:

  • Trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy

  • Other types of 1-on-1 or group talk therapy

  • Medicines to manage anxiety, insomnia, and depression

It’s also important for a child to be with other children. It can make them feel less alone. And will help them work through their pain.

What you can do

You can play a large part in your child’s healing process. You can:

  • Accept your child's emotions. Remind them of your love and support.

  • Encourage them to share their feelings with you or a trusted healthcare provider.

  • Schedule ongoing mental healthcare for them.

  • If PTSD causes problems with schoolwork or friendships, ask school staff for support.

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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