Identifying Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in a Child

We tend to think of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in terms of war veterans and accident victims. We just assume that PTSD is a condition that only adults deal with. But children can experience it as well. When they do, it is not completely dissimilar to PTSD in adults.

Parenting a child experiencing PTSD can be a struggle, especially when you know there is something wrong but you cannot identify the issue. But just as PTSD in adults can be treated, it can also be treated in children. Moms and dads of children with PTSD don’t have to journey down the parenting road alone. They can get help for their children and themselves.

A Basic Definition

PTSD is a mental health condition that can affect people of any age. It is the result of experiencing some sort of traumatic or highly stressful event that the mind has trouble processing. The interesting thing about PTSD in children is the symptom timeline. Some children begin experiencing PTSD symptoms almost immediately while others don’t start showing symptoms for months.

It is especially important to identify childhood PTSD because it can lead to other conditions if left untreated. PTSD is linked to depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and other chronic mental health issues.

Symptoms of PTSD in Children

Children act out in all sorts of ways and for different reasons. Just because a child isn’t behaving normally doesn’t mean he or she has experienced a traumatic event that led to PTSD. As professionals, we look for a variety of symptoms in combination. By observing a child’s behavior and paying attention to what parents’ report, we can identify PTSD.

Here are the most common symptoms of PTSD in children:

  • Sleep problems.
  • Nervousness, jittery behavior, etc.
  • Depression and irritability.
  • Losing interest in previously enjoyed activities.
  • Increased aggressiveness.
  • Loss of affection for loved ones.
  • Avoiding places or circumstances that trigger memories.
  • An unexplained loss of touch with reality.

One or two symptoms doesn’t necessarily mean PTSD. For example, it is not uncommon for teenagers to be irritable and slightly depressed. It’s not unusual for them to be less affectionate toward their parents. However, a combination of pronounced symptoms is worth further investigation, especially if they persist for a time.

Causes of PTSD in Children

PTSD in children is generally caused by either a single traumatic event or a series of traumatic events the child is unable to deal with. It could be something that a child saw or heard. It could be something the child experienced first-hand. It could even be the knowledge of something that happened to a loved one.

A classic example is a violent car crash that leaves a child with terrible memories as well as physical and mental injuries. The experience itself was traumatic enough that the child continues to have nightmares, flashbacks, and so forth. The issue might be exacerbated if the child lost a parent or sibling in the crash.

Examples of other potential causes include:

  • Natural disasters (tornadoes, floods, etc.).
  • Physical, sexual, or verbal abuse.
  • Violent crimes (e.g., home invasion and robbery).
  • Life threatening illnesses and invasive medical procedures.

Virtually anything that causes a traumatic level of stress in a child’s mind can lead to PTSD. How is it treated? Through a combination of talking therapies, behavioral therapies, and medications (when necessary). Recovery times vary in children with some recovering in a few months while others taking longer.

If you are parenting a child you believe is experiencing PTSD, know that you have our compassion. We would be more than happy to help through diagnosis and treatment.

Dr. Aryeh Berlin is a New Jersey licensed clinical psychologist and founder of Aspire Psychological Group. Dr. Berlin has vast clinical training experiences including a residential adolescent addiction treatment center in Israel, community mental health centers, and youth detention centers. Dr. Berlin has lectured on parenting children with emotional and behavioral difficulties, child development, helping children with school-related challenges and trauma. Audiences included attorneys, mental health professionals, parents, and educators.

Identifying Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in a Child