Children’s Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Children’s Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

This page specifically refers to children’s Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD); click here for information about adult PTSD.

How do you know if your child is suffering from children’s Posttraumatic Stress Disorder? The symptoms of children’s Posttruamatic Stress Disorder can be recognised using the TRAP analogy:

T: Traumatic event

The child has experienced a traumatic event or witnessed someone else experiencing it, and the situation is perceived to be out of the child’s control.

R: Re-experiencing

The child re-experiences the event through repetitive, intrusive thoughts about the event.

A: Avoidance

The child begins to avoid situations, including those that are reminders of the traumatic situation.

P: Physical tension

The child experiences physical tension and hyper-vigilance.

In addition, an increase in general anxiety often results in sleep disturbances, difficulty separating from parents, anger and irritability, alertness to dangers in the environment, difficulties with concentration and memory, feeling “jittery” and having an exaggerated startle response. Also, co-morbid depression (especially in adolescents) and panic attacks may occur. In younger children, repetitive play or drawings about the event, regression and antisocial behaviour are common.

What kind of trauma causes these symptoms?

These symptoms can be caused by sexual abuse, physical abuse, being involved in a natural disaster, or any other event that is emotionally overwhelming and exceeds the child’s ability to cope.

What should be done?

While caregivers are sometimes effective in assisting children who present with other childhood anxiety disorders, PTSD is best dealt with by a qualified mental health professional, who is able to correctly diagnose the disorder and work closely with the child to decrease symptoms and improve quality of life.

What is involved in the treatment?

Treatment plans for children’s posttraumatic stress disorder are designed for each child depending on their particular presentation. However, treatment would generally involve the following components:

  • Teaching the child arousal reduction and distraction techniques
  • Addressing avoidance behaviours using cognitive behavioural methods
  • Re-exposing the child to the traumatic cues. This is done in a structured and supportive manner through storytelling, writing, art activities and, with younger children, through puppets.

Caregivers are closely involved in treatment and will often take on the role of “co-therapist” outside of the treatment setting.