Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in Children and Adolescents
What is Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in Children and Adolescents?
Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a serious condition of non-recovery from trauma that can occur at any age and can, if untreated, persist throughout the entirety of a person’s lifetime. When a person with PTSD is “triggered” by even the most subtle reminder of a traumatic event that occurred in their past, they may be subjected to a cycle of painful and disruptive automatic physical and emotional responses. These responses may include unwanted thoughts, nightmares, intense fear, angry outbursts or feeling frozen or disconnected from one’s body. PTSD in children and adolescents is especially disturbing, but specially-designed therapeutic treatments can help even the youngest children to begin to process their trauma and stop the cycle of PTSD. In addition, therapy and medication can help to address the anxiety, depression, sleep disturbance or attentional symptoms that may result from unprocessed trauma.
What is the Cause of PTSD in Children and Adolescents?
PTSD is caused by directly experiencing or witnessing a very scary or violent event, or an event which is perceived to be life-threatening. PTSD can also be caused by learning that such an event has happened to a loved one. According to the US Department of Veterans Affairs, currently upwards of 15% of children under the age of 18 in the US have experienced some form of trauma. Although a very small percentage of those will develop the serious condition known as PTSD, the effects of trauma on children and adolescents are wide-ranging and may predispose them to developing other mental health concerns such as anxiety, depression, eating disorders, self-harm, substance use and suicidality. For this reason, some form of trauma-focused care is important for children and adolescents who have experienced very distressing and unexpected events in their young lives.
What are the Symptoms of PTSD in Children and Adolescents?
Children and adolescents who have experienced trauma may act irritably, have trouble sleeping, complain of nightmares, change their eating habits or erupt in emotional outbursts. They may seem to irrationally avoid certain places, people or experiences, or express negative thoughts about themselves, others or the world. All too often, trauma in children and adolescents can be misidentified as problematic behaviors, or mood or conduct disorders. Trauma may go completely unnoticed due to a child’s limited ability to communicate or even comprehend the devastating transformation which they have undergone. For adolescents, a sense of shame, guilt or self-blame may prevent them from reporting trauma or seeking support. Traumatized children and adolescents are often silent about their experiences and disconnected from their family, peers and the world around them. This is why learning the warning signs of trauma is crucial for parents, caregivers, teachers and other helping professionals.
How Do We Diagnose PTSD in Children and Adolescents?
If your child has undergone a traumatic experience, it’s advisable to see a trauma therapist as soon as possible. Processing trauma early is one way to avoid developing PTSD. If you’re not sure, or you observe changes in your child’s behavior which you believe may be a result of trauma, a mental health provider might use one of many reliable assessment tools such as the CTS or CPSS-5 self-report questionnaires to determine if a trauma disorder exists. These tests look for the same symptoms as in adults, but they use language and imagery which is accessible to younger clients. Clinicians may also interview parents, caregivers and teachers to fill in significant family history and observations about the child or adolescent. Once a trauma diagnosis has been made, your psychiatrist or psychotherapist will recommend the most appropriate treatment to allow your child to heal and move on from their trauma.