What is childhood PTSD?
Following exposure to a traumatic event, it is common for children to experience psychological distress.
In severe traumatic events, it is common for people to be symptomatic for a fortnight after the event. People that experience trauma are most likely to experience emotions of upset, increased anxiety, sleep and appetite disturbances. Some children will also experience emotions such as fear, sadness, guilt or anger.
For the majority of children, psychological symptoms of distress will settle down in a couple of days or weeks from using coping strategies and naturally occurring support networks to come to terms with the nerving experience. However, a small percentage of children the symptoms persist and develop into Acute Stress Disorder and/or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
PTSD Myths and Facts
When we think of PTSD, often we think of it as a mental health condition that only has an impact on adults. However, that is far from the truth. PTSD is a mental health condition that has an impact on all ages. Beyond Blue highlights the prevalence of mental health conditions in adolescents and children;
- Over 75% of mental health problems occur before the age of 25.
- Almost one fifth of all young people aged 11 – 17 experience high or very high levels of psychological distress.
- Half of all the mental health conditions we experience at some point in our lives will have started by the age of 14.
- One in ten young people aged 12-17 years old will self-harm, one in 13 will seriously consider a suicide attempt, and one in 40 will attempt suicide.
- The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reported that international studies estimate that 62-68% of young people will have been exposed to at least 1 traumatic event by the age of 17.
What causes Childhood PTSD?
A traumatic event that triggers PTSD may be something that has happened to the child; something that happened to someone close to the child and something the child saw. Some incidents that may cause childhood PTSD may be:
- Animal bites or attacks
- Physical abuse
- Sexual abuse
- Emotional abuse or bullying
- Manmade tragedies, such as war events
- Natural disasters, such as floods or earthquakes
- Violent personal attacks, such as robbing, rape, torture or kidnapping
- Invasive medical procedures, especially in children under the age of 6
Children at risk of PTSD
A child’s risk of developing PTSD is often influenced by:
- The significance of the event
- How close the child was to the traumatic event?
- The duration of the traumatic event
- If the event occurred more than once
- How well the child is able to recover from the event (resiliency)
- How well the child copes
- The support system around the child following the traumatic event
PTSD Symptoms in Children
PTSD can cause a variety of symptoms in children, including unwanted intrusive thoughts, persistent efforts to avoid things that remind them of the trauma, and negative changes in mood and thought. PTSD may also be accompanied by:
- Substance abuse
Some trauma symptoms will be easy for parents, teachers or care givers to notice, while others, such as altering ways of thinking, may be subtler. My topic page Understanding trauma behaviour goes into more detail surrounding this topic. Below are some common PTSD symptoms;
- Unusually irritable
- Difficulty concentrating
- Easily startled
- Difficulty sleeping
- Significant changes in mood
- Changes in ways the child views the world, relationships and themselves
- Feelings of guilt and shame
- Seeming detached or estranged from others
- Feel depressed or grouchy
- Feel nervous jittery, alert and watchful
- Become more aggressive than before, even violent
- Have difficulty being affectionate
- Stay away from certain places or situations that bring back painful memories
- Have problems at school
- Lose touch with reality
- Have flashbacks; sounds, smells, images, feeling and taste
- Concerned and worried about dying at a young age
- Difficulty focusing
- Loss of interest in things they used to enjoy. Seem numb and detached.
- Act younger than their age, such as thumb-sucking or bedwetting
- Have physical symptoms, such as headaches or stomach aches
Re-experiencing the trauma is a common symptom of PTSD. My topic page on Trauma Triggers goes into this topic with further detail. Children of all ages might re-experience their trauma during nightmares, flashbacks or intrusive memories. In young children re-experiencing might happen during play, which parents may be disturbing. My articles on Play Therapy and How Trauma Affects Children discuss this topic further.
Age influences Trauma Symptoms
PTSD symptoms can look different at different ages. Research shows that at a younger age children might not be able to articulate exactly what they’re feeling, but as a parent you might notice more avoidance of cues that remind them of the event.
As children get older, they might struggle more with symptoms around fairness. They might be wondering things like ‘How could something like this happen if I’M a good person?’.
Does age influence trauma treatment?
Yes. When children are in preschool they use associative logic, following this they start to develop more concrete thinking, and then when they are in their adolescents they adapt more abstract thinking. At times through child development, they can find that they start to struggle with an element of their trauma that didn’t bother them before, and may feel like they need to see a therapist again to help them deal and process the new trauma symptom.
How can I help my child with PTSD?
Parents may like to read my other articles on how trauma affects children, and how they can help their child following a traumatic event and
If trauma behaviours persist for a couple of weeks, symptoms may have developed into PTSD. Treatment for childhood PTSD is recommended, as living with PTSD is enormously distressing and left untreated may have a negative impact on your child.
Author: Larissa Watter, BA Counselling.
Larissa Watter is a Brisbane counsellor, passionate about working with children. She is currently furthering her studies by undertaking a Certificate in Child Centred Play Therapy.
To make an appointment with Larissa Watter try Online Booking. Alternatively, you can call M1 Psychology Loganholme on (07) 3067 9129 or Vision Psychology Wishart on (07) 3088 5422.