PTSD Symptoms

When we hear the words post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), we think of adults having experienced traumatic events at some point in their lives. However, the US Department of Veterans Affairs states that children and teens could have PTSD if they have lived through a catastrophic event or witnessed a violent crime. Some of these events may include sexual or physical abuse, disasters such as floods, school shootings, car crashes, or fires. Other events that can cause PTSD are war, a friend’s suicide, a death of a pet or loved one, or seeing violence in the area they live.

Children and teens that go through the most severe traumas tend to have the highest levels of PTSD symptoms. The PTSD symptoms may be less severe if the child has more family support and if the parents are less upset by the trauma. Lastly, children and teens that are farther away from the event report less distress.

PTSD Symptoms in Children Age Six and Younger

Posttraumatic stress disorder is diagnosed after a person experiences symptoms for at least one month following a traumatic event. The disorder is characterized by three main types of symptoms:

  • Re-experiencing the trauma through intrusive distressing recollections of the event, flashbacks, and nightmares.
  • Emotional numbness and avoidance of places, people, and activities that are reminders of the trauma.
  • Increased arousal such as difficulty sleeping and concentrating, feeling jumpy, and being easily irritated and angered.

Exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violation:

  • direct experience
  • witnessing the events as they occurred to others, especially primary caregivers
  • learning that the traumatic events occurred to a parent or caregiving figure

One of the following related to traumatic events:

  • persistent avoidance of activities, places, or physical reminders
  • people, conversations, or interpersonal situations that arouse recollections
  • diminished interest or participation in significant activities such as play
  • socially withdrawn behavior
  • persistent reduction in expression of positive emotions

Two or more of the following:

  • irritable, angry, or aggressive behavior, including extreme temper tantrums
  • hypervigilance
  • exaggerated startle response
  • problems with concentration
  • difficulty falling or staying asleep or restless sleep

How is PTSD treated in children and teens?

For many children, PTSD symptoms go away on their own after a few months. Yet some children show symptoms for years if they do not get treatment. There are many treatment options, and parents should choose one that best fits the child’s personality and needs.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is the most effective approach for treating children. One type of CBT is called Trauma-Focused CBT (TF-CBT). In this type of therapy, the child may talk about his or her memory of the trauma. TF-CBT also includes techniques to help lower worry and stress. The child may learn how to assert himself or herself. CBT often uses training for parents and caregivers as well.

Psychological First Aid (PFA) has been used with school-aged children and teens that have been through violence where they live. PFA can be used in schools and traditional settings. It involves providing comfort and support, and letting children know their reactions are normal. PFA teaches calming and problem solving skills. PFA also helps caregivers deal with changes in the child’s feelings and behavior.

Play therapy can be used to treat young children with PTSD who are not able to deal with the trauma more directly. The therapist uses games, drawings, and other methods to help children process their traumatic memories.

What can you do to help?

First and foremost, your child needs your support and understanding. Sometimes other family members like parents and siblings will need support, too. While family and friends can play a key role in helping someone recover, it’s usually necessary to seek help from a trained therapist.

Counselor Jennifer will work with your family to help you and your child or teen adjust to what happened and get back to living life. She specializes in children and adolescent issues. Call her (716) 432-3656 so your child can start treatment and start living his/her life again.