Children with PTSD typically experience three types of symptoms:
Re-experiencing the trauma
The child continues to mentally re-live the traumatic experience, over and over
He/she may have “flashbacks” of the event, feeling like he/she is actually going through the experience again.
They may even hallucinate scenes, sounds or smells from the experience.
They may have severe nightmares (either about the traumatic event or about other frightening things).
They may feel the need to “hash out” the event verbally or in play.
They cannot stop thinking about the traumatic experience, no matter what they do.
The child deliberately avoids any thought, object, place or situation that is related to the traumatic experience or reminds him/her of the event in any way.
They may have difficulty remembering details about the event (“blocking it out”).
They may become numb to his/her feelings and surroundings in general as a coping mechanism.
The child feels as though he/she must constantly be “on guard,” in case the trauma happens again or another dangerous situation emerges.
They might be easily startled or frightened.
They may have trouble falling or staying asleep.
They may experience difficulty concentrating on schoolwork and other routine
They might have outbursts of unprovoked or excessive anger.
A very young child who cannot verbalize feelings or thoughts about a trauma may demonstrate the following after the experience:
Out-of-control, disruptive behavior
Extreme fear of being separated from the primary caregiver
A child develops PTSD when:
They perceive the experience as life-threatening or extremely dangerous
They respond to the event with intense fear, helplessness or horror
What can cause post-traumatic stress disorder in a child?
Any child who witnesses or goes through a life-threatening experience is at risk of developing PTSD. While any traumatic event can trigger PTSD symptoms, common traumas that have been linked to the disorder include:
Accidents, such as car or plane crashes
Natural disasters, such as floods or earthquakes
Acts of war or terrorism
Violent crimes, such as a home invasion, kidnapping or murder
Physical, emotional or sexual abuse (either of the child or of another family member in front of the child)
Exposure to violence at school or in the community (i.e. school shootings, mall
Suicide of a family member or friend
It’s important to note, however, that not all children who live through one of these traumas will develop PTSD.
PTSD symptoms can vary depending on the age of the child and the circumstances of the trauma, but tend to include:
Intense anxiety when separated from family members or around strangers
Disturbances in sleep (unable to fall or stay asleep)
Sad, withdrawn mood
Feeling jittery, “on edge” or “on guard”
Easily startled, especially by sounds or sudden movements
Loss of interest in activities and subjects previously enjoyed
Physical or emotional detachment from family members and friends
Feeling or acting “numb”
Difficulty displaying affection
Excessive or illogical irritability
Aggressive (or even violent) attacks on others
Avoidance of particular places, situations or objects that bring back memories of the
“Flashbacks” (feeling like the traumatic experience is happening again; may include seeing or hearing parts of the event that are not really occurring)
Inability to distinguish reality from thoughts or dreams
Constantly re-enacting the trauma through play, drawings, writings or conversation
Problems in school
Preoccupation with death and dying
Worrying about dying at an early age or losing other loved ones
Regressive behaviors (acting younger than their age), such as bedwetting or
Physical complaints, such as stomachaches or headaches, with no identifiable medical cause
Many of these symptoms can also point to another mental health condition, such as depression or an anxiety disorder. Your child’s clinician will help determine the cause of the symptoms and develop an appropriate treatment plan to meet all the needs of the child.
Treatment for PTSD is complex, ongoing and depends very much on the child’s individual symptoms and circumstances. However, psychotherapy“(talk therapy”), family support and—in some cases—the addition of medication to the treatment regimen have all shown excellent results in helping kids with PTSD return to a normal, healthy life.