Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in Children
All children experience some form of stressful events in their life that affect how they think and feel. Most children recover quickly, depending on the severity of trauma and the support they are provided with. However, sometimes children who experience severe stress or trauma might be affected for long-term. When children develop long term symptoms (longer than one month) from such stressful events or trauma, which interfere with their relationships and daily activities, they may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
PTSD is an anxiety disorder that is brought on by exposure to trauma or an extremely disturbing event. People with PTSD often re-experience their trauma in the form of flashbacks, memories, nightmares etc.
The causes and risk factors of PTSD
Not everyone who experiences trauma develops PTSD. The chances of developing it depends on the personality of the individual, history of mental health issues, family history, childhood experiences, and the nature and severity of the traumatic event.
A child who has a family member with any of the anxiety disorders is more likely to be similarly affected. Children might inherit genes that make them more prone to anxiety and stress.
Genetics help direct the way brain chemicals (called neurotransmitters) work. Studies show that people with PTSD often have atypical levels of neurotransmitters and hormones involved in the stress response. For example they have lower cortisol levels and higher epinephrine and norepinephrine levels. These neurotransmitters play a major role in the body's ‘fight-or-flight’ response.
- Environmental factors
If the things happening in a child’s life are stressful and difficult to cope with e.g loss, serious illness, death of a loved one, violence, trauma or abuse can lead to some children becoming more prone to anxiety and stress.
- Traumatic event
The higher the severity and the frequency of trauma is, the higher will be the levels of PTSD symptoms. Some of the traumatic events that can trigger PTSD may be:
- Bad accidents
- Invasive medical procedures
- Natural disasters
- Violent personal attacks, such as a mugging, rape, torture
- Physical abuse
- Sexual abuse
- Emotional abuse
What Are the Signs & Symptoms of PTSD?
Children with PTSD might have symptoms of stress, anxiety, depression and physical distress. Emotional and physical distress is experienced especially when the person is exposed to a situation, place, object, person or a stimuli that reminds them of the traumatic event. Since it might lead them to relive the trauma. PTSD symptoms keep happening for more than 1 month after the event and negatively affect the child’s life and how he or she functions. Symptoms of PTSD most often start within 3 months after the traumatic event. But they can also start months or years later.
Children with PTSD might
- Have physical symptoms, such as headaches or stomach aches
- Have intrusive thoughts or memories of the event
- Experience upsetting dreams or nightmares
- Children may reenact what happened in their play or drawings
- Avoiding thinking about or talking about the trauma
- Avoid certain situations and places
- Being unable to remember important parts of what happened
- Lack of interest in participating in regular activities
- Have trouble sleeping
- Not be eating well or not doing the things they usually enjoy
- Feel depressed, grouchy, nervous, jittery, or extremely alert
- Lose interest in things they used to enjoy
- Be detached, numb and not responsive.
- Be more aggressive and violent
- Lose touch with reality
- Have problems in school
- Have trouble focusing
- Worry about dying at a young age
- Negative thinking or mood since the event happened
- Blaming oneself for the traumatic event
- Not able to have positive emotions (happiness, satisfaction, loving feelings)
- Lasting feelings of anxiety or physical reactions
PTSD in children can look a little different than PTSD in adults and teens. Younger kids tend to show more fearful and regressive behaviours. Bed-wetting, thumb-sucking, enacting the event through play and drawings are some of the symptoms of PTSD more prevalent in children.
How is PTSD treated in a child?
Just like other anxiety disorders, the treatment for PTSD might include counselling, cognitive behavioural therapy or medication depending on the type and severity of the trauma.
- Mental-health counselling
Talking to a trained professional might help your child understand what exactly is making them anxious and stressed and allow them to work through these symptoms of PTSD.
- Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)
CBT aims to create a safe and supportive environment for a child. It teaches a child to cope with his or her fear instead of addressing the trauma directly.
Medicines for depression or anxiety might be prescribed if therapy is not producing fruitful results. They're usually only prescribed by doctors who specialise in children and young people's mental health and might help children feel calmer.
How Can Parents Help?
As a parent, you play a key role in your child’s treatment. Here are things you can do to support your child:
- Most kids need time to adjust after a stressful event. During this time it is important for parents to offer support and understanding.
- Try to keep your child’s life as similar to what it was before the event as possible.
- Let them talk about the traumatic event if, when and however they feel like doing so
- Let them know that their feelings are valid and understood
- Get professional help immediately if you have any concern that a child has thoughts of self-harm.
- Traumatic events might shatter a child’s self-confidence. Help build it up by encouraging kids to make everyday decisions
- Tell them that the traumatic event is not their fault. Encourage kids to talk about any feelings of guilt, but don't let them blame themselves for what happened.
- Discuss your child’s situation with their teachers, babysitters, caregivers and other family members so they act accordingly
- It is common for younger kids to show more regressive behaviour. In this case do not criticise them e.g. if the child wants to sleep with a stuffed animal or a blanket they like.