The National Center for PTSD (2010) estimates that up to 43 percent of children experience at least one traumatic incident in their young lives. This trauma puts children and teens at risk for developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Causes of PTSD in Children
PTSD is a severe anxiety disorder caused by exposure to terrifying or violent events. Children and teens may develop PTSD after experiencing or witnessing:
- Abuse (physical, sexual or emotional)
- Life-threatening illness
- Natural disasters
- Serious accidents
- The death of a parent
Between 3 to 15 percent of girls and 1 to 6 percent of boys who have been exposed to trauma will eventually suffer from PTSD, according to the National Center for PTSD (2010). Following is a list of traumatic events that may cause a higher risk of PTSD in children and the approximate percentages of children who develop the condition:
- Witnessing a parent killed or a sexual assault: 100 percent
- Being sexually abused: 90 percent
- Witness a school shooting: 77 percent
- Witnessing violent acts in their neighborhoods: 35 percent.
Children and PTSD Symptoms
Understanding the signs and symptoms of PTSD can help you determine if your child, or a child you know, is suffering from this disorder.
Common signs of PTSD in children include:
- Diminished interest in activities
- Emotional numbness
- Fitting traumatic event into daily life (such as carrying a gun to school after witnessing a school shooting)
- Looking for signs that trauma will reoccur, in order to avoid being traumatized again
- Nervousness or jumpiness
- Physical symptoms like stomach aches or headaches
- Remembering traumatic events in the wrong order
- Repeating traumatic events in play (such as acting out a shooting or assault with toys).
In teens, PTSD symptoms are often similar to adult symptoms, including:
- Avoidance of situations or places associated with trauma
- Difficulty in school or social situations
- Inappropriate sexual behavior (after sexual abuse)
- Losing touch with reality
- Reenacting the event
- Sleep problems.
Some children can recover from a trauma on their own, but others may need professional treatment. Here are some treatment options for children with PTSD:
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT): Considered the most effective treatment for PTSD children, CBT allows the child to talk about his experience and learn techniques to reduce worry and stress.
- Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR): This type of CBT combines cognitive therapy with directed eye movements.
- Play therapy: Therapists use drawings, games and toys to help young children deal with their traumatic memories.
- Psychological first aid/crisis management: This type of therapy can help school-aged children and teens heal from traumatic events. Therapists provide comfort and support to let kids know their feelings are normal, and teach calming and problem-solving skills.
National Youth Network. (n.d.). Post-traumatic stress disorder: Sexual abuse. Retrieved June 24, 2010, from: http://www.nationalyouth.com/posttraumaticstressdisorder.html.
United States Department of Veterans Affairs. (2010). PTSD in children and teens. Retrieved June 24, 2010, from: http://www.ptsd.va.gov/public/pages/ptsd-children-adolescents.asp.
VA National Center for PTSD. (n.d.). PTSD in children. Retrieved June 24, 2010, from: http://www.forests.com/ptsdchil1.html.