At one time or another, virtually all children experience pivotal or important events that will affect them, both physically and emotionally. Usually, their reactions are brief and they are able to completely recover from the incident without further problems. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) occurs when a child continues to have ongoing problems after experiencing a catastrophic event. The traumatic event usually involves a situation where someone’s life was threatened or severe injury has occurred, or when someone close to them has been diagnosed with a life threatening illness. They may also have been victims or witnesses of physical or sexual abuse or been in an automobile accident or experienced a natural disaster.
The child’s risk of developing PTSD is directly related to the seriousness of the event, whether or not it was repeated, the proximity to the trauma, and the closeness of their relationship to the victims. Studies show that 15-43% of girls and 14-43% of boys will experience a traumatic event during their childhood. Of these children, approximately 3-15% of girls and 1-6% of boys will develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Studies also show that children with greater family support and less parental distress will have lower levels of PTSD symptoms.
After the traumatic event, the child may appear to be agitated or confused. They may also experience intense fear, a feeling of being helpless, angry, sad, or they may be in denial. If the trauma is repeated, the child may block the pain and trauma by developing an emotional numbing. This emotional block is called disassociation. They may become less and less emotionally responsive, depressed, withdrawn, and more detached from their feelings. They will try to avoid situations and places that remind them of the traumatic event that they experienced. Children with PTSD often relive the trauma by experiencing memories of the event frequently or by having upsetting and scary dreams. They often develop physical
“A child with PTSD will often relive the trauma…”and emotional symptoms that occur whenever they are reminded of the situation.
Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in children include: being worried about dying at an early age, losing interest in activities, reliving the trauma, and showing sudden and extreme emotions. They may become irritable and experience angry outbursts and trouble concentrating. They may also experience physical symptoms like frequent headaches, stomachaches, or insomnia. Children with PTSD often repeat behavior that reminds them of the trauma.
In very young children, PTSD may be difficult to diagnose as the child is unable to verbalize their feelings and experiences. Instead, their symptoms may manifest as separation anxiety or a preoccupation with words that have nothing to do with their experience. They may regress and lose an acquired skill, such as toilet training. Elementary aged children often experience the symptom of “omen formation” which means that they believe that if they are alert enough, they will be able to recognize the warning signs which will alert them to future traumas. They may increasingly engage in games that are a re-enactment of the traumatic event that they experienced. It is important to remember that if your child suffers from PTSD, they need your support and understanding more than ever.