All children and adolescents experience stressful events which can affect them both emotionally and physically. Their reactions to stress are usually brief, and with support from friends and family, they can recover without further problems. But some children exposed to stressful, scary, or dangerous events may develop posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
PTSD can result from any stressful or traumatic event(s) where someone’s life has been threatened or severe injury has occurred, whether the child witnessed it or experienced it themselves. Such events include physical, sexual, or verbal abuse, violence in the home or community, auto accidents, natural disasters (such as floods, fires, or earthquakes), being diagnosed with a serious or life-threatening illness, exposure to war or conflict, experiencing homelessness, and other potentially traumatic events. A child’s risk of developing PTSD is related to the seriousness of the trauma, whether the trauma is repeated, the child’s proximity to the trauma, and his/her relationship to the victim(s).
PTSD symptoms include:
- Agitated or confused behavior
- Intense fear, helplessness, anger, sadness, horror, and/or denial
- Dissociation or emotional numbing (especially with repeated/ongoing trauma)
- Avoidance of situations or places that remind them of the trauma
- Becoming less emotionally responsive, depressed, withdrawn, and detached from their feelings
- Re-experiencing the traumatic event by: having frequent memories of the event, repeating behavior that reminds them of the trauma and/or play in which some or all of the trauma is repeated over and over (especially in young children), having upsetting and frightening dreams, acting or feeling like the experience is happening again, and/or developing physical or emotional symptoms whenever child is reminded of the event(s)
- Worry about dying at an early age
- Losing interest in activities
- Physical symptoms such as headaches and stomachaches (not explained by illness)
- Showing more sudden and extreme emotional reactions
- Sleep problems (sleeping too much or too little)
- Irritability or angry outbursts
- Trouble concentrating
- Acting younger than their age (e.g., clingy or whiny behavior, thumb-sucking, baby talk)
- Showing increased alertness to the environment
Early intervention is essential to helping children and adolescents recover from trauma. Support from parents, school, and peers is important. Therapy (individual, group, and/or family), particularly evidence-based treatments for trauma, is recommended. Medication may also be useful to deal with agitation, anxiety, or depression.
If you are concerned that your child may be experiencing PTSD symptoms, start by talking to their pediatrician. Additional resources for parents, caregivers, and child-serving professionals are linked below.
Helpful Resources on Helping Children and Youth Who Have Experienced Trauma
- Learn more about PTSD in children and adolescents at the AACAP website.
- Explore the AACAP’s Trauma and Child Abuse Resource Center.
- Find an evidence-based trauma treatment provider in Connecticut here.
- Get a general overview of several evidence-based treatments for child trauma in this video series from CHDI.
- Child-serving professionals – including teachers and other school staff, pediatric medical providers, juvenile justice and child welfare staff, early childhood educators, and behavioral health clinicians – can access a FREE online trauma screening course, Trauma ScreenTIME, to learn how to screen children and youth for traumatic stress symptoms and develop an effective trauma screening process across their organization.
- Learn more about child trauma, evidence-based treatments, training for clinicians and schools, and more at the National Child Traumatic Stress Network.