What Causes PTSD in a Child?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is much more common in children than one might imagine. Here’s some information about what causes PTSD in a child.

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Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition in which and individual experiences a traumatic event and is psychologically affected by it. While the illness is often associated with veterans, it can happen to anyone of any age.

In fact, being as a child’s brain is in its prime developmental stages, children may be more vulnerable to PTSD in comparison to adults. Of course, there are a number of circumstances that must be considered before a proper diagnosis is made.

Throughout this article, we’re going to explore how PTSD can effect children. At the end, we invite you to ask further questions.

Symptoms of PTSD in Children

Symptoms of PTSD will begin to appear after an individual experiences a traumatic event. What’s defined as a traumatic event ultimately depends on an individual’s perception. However, common events that lead to PTSD in children include injury, death of a close family member, physical or sexual abuse, and violence. ¹

From this event, a child will develop a set of PTSD symptoms. It should be noted that not ever child will experience the same symptoms nor the same severity of symptoms. Not to mention, while some symptoms are identical those experienced by adults, there are a select few that are unique to children.

These are the most common PTSD symptoms experienced among children:

  • Always looking out for potential threats (easily startled)
  • Avoids places, people, and objects associated the their traumatic event
  • Denial of the traumatic event (feeling numb)
  • Doesn’t participate in activities that once interested them
  • Doesn’t show signs of positive emotions
  • Feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, and withdrawal from life
  • Irritability (angry outbursts)
  • Playing out the event in their head or through play
  • Severe feelings of sadness and fear
  • Sleep problems (nightmares)

While a child may not always exhibit these symptoms, they should be extremely apparent when the traumatic event is remembered.

What Causes PTSD in Children

Unlike other mental health conditions, PTSD can be identified by a single or multiple traumatic event(s) rather than genetics or an individual’s environment. However, being as PTSD is a type of anxiety disorder, there are individual’s out there more vulnerable to it than others.

It can be difficult to diagnose a child with PTSD as many of the symptoms overlap with other mental illnesses, such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one of the following traumatic events is likely to occur before PTSD symptoms arise:

  • Disasters (natural or manmade)
  • Intense car accident
  • Physical, sexual, or emotional abuse
  • Witnesses or being a victim to violence or crime
  • Witnesses a serious illness or death of a family member or close friend

Again, not every child who experiences these events will develop PTSD. In fact, a child is more likely to show signs and symptoms of PTSD is they are subjected to the causes of anxiety. These include:

  • Environment – If a child lives in an unruly environment where trauma is regularly present (i.e. abuse), they are more vulnerable to anxiety. ²
  • Genetics – If a family member has been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, the chances of a child also receiving this diagnosis are much higher. ³
  • Other Mental Disorders – If a child experiences another mental disorder, such as depression or bipolar disorder, they are more likely to develop a form of anxiety.
  • Personality Types – Children with certain personality types are more vulnerable to anxiety than others.
  • Stress Buildup – If a child is experiencing a serious health condition or constantly worries about life situations, it can trigger anxiety. ⁴

However, it should be mentioned that even if a child is not subjected to the causes of anxiety, they can still develop PTSD.

How Common is PTSD in Children?

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs conducted a review of a number of studies looking into PTSD in children. It concluded:

“Studies show that about 15% to 43% of girls and 14% to 43% of boys go through at least one trauma. Of those children and teens who have had a trauma, 3% to 15% of girls and 1% to 6% of boys develop PTSD. Rates of PTSD are higher for certain types of trauma survivors.” ⁶

The same review also looked into reports for child protection services in the U.S. From the cases concerning abuse, it developed percentage base of how common specific abuses are among children:

  • Neglect – 65%
  • Physical abuse – 18%
  • Sexual abuse – 10%
  • Psychological (mental) abuse – 7%

While this review doesn’t have the most concise data, it gives us an inside look as to the most frequent causes of PTSD in children. Not to mention, PTSD’s relevance in the general population of children.

How is PTSD Treated in Children?

In order for PTSD treatment to begin, a child must first be diagnosed with the condition. Again, this is a bit easier than other mental illnesses as a direct traumatic experience can give insight into why a child now experiences symptoms. However, this traumatic experience isn’t always clear and sometimes symptoms can appear similar to other mental health conditions.

Once a diagnosis is reached, a mental health professional will ensure a child feels safe with their parents/guardians, friends, school, and others around them in order to ensure there’s little chance of the traumatic event happening again.

When this point is reached, psychotherapies are the most common treatment for children with PTSD. A psychotherapy will involve the child to discuss, draw, play, or write about the traumatic event. The goal is to help the child identify the thought patterns and triggers surrounding this event and to teach them coping mechanisms for symptoms. ⁷

While psychotherapies are often individual sessions, group therapies that involve family members or other children with PTSD can be beneficial.

Medications may also be offered to your child in order to help further curb symptoms. These usually include antidepressant or anti-anxiety medications to help calm nerves and allow them to get a better sense of control.

However, it should be noted that medications can cause further problems down the road. Some of the medications prescribed for PTSD are addictive and may want to be avoided. Not to mention, being as a child’s brain is still in development, it may be in a parent or guardian’s best interest to keep their child off pharmaceuticals.

Final Word

If you know a child who is experiencing PTSD, it’s vital they seek out help immediately. When untreated, PTSD can develop and symptoms can worsen as that child transitions into adulthood.

Not to mention, it’s important to create an environment where your child feels safe and protective. We highly suggest speaking to their healthcare provider to get a better idea of your child’s PTSD and what you can do to prevent further attacks.

Your Questions

Still have questions about how PTSD can effect children?

We invite you to ask them in the comments section below. If you have any further knowledge to share – whether personal or professional – we’d also love to hear from you.

Reference Sources

¹ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Children’s Mental Health: Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

² Dialogues in clinical neuroscience: Environmental transmission of generalized anxiety disorder from parents to children

³ Dialogues in clinical neuroscience: Genetics of generalized anxiety disorder and related traits

⁴ National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH): 5 Things You Should Know About Stress

⁵ The Psychiatric Times (HHS Public Access): Anxiety and Substance Abuse Disorders: A Review

⁶ U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: How Common is PTSD in Children and Teens?

⁷ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA): Recognizing and Treating Child Traumatic Stress

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