When you think of PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder), soldiers returning from combat may come to mind. But years of research suggest many others experience PTSD, too, even young children, though their symptoms may differ from those of older children, adolescents and adults.
PTSD in adults and children can occur after exposure to a traumatic event — living through one, witnessing one in person, or learning about a traumatic event that involved a family member. A traumatic event can include a violent experience in the home or community, a fire, a natural disaster, a car accident, or the sudden death of a family member. The younger a child is, the greater the impact. The loss of a parent or being removed from a parent, for example, feels like a threat to a child, according to child psychiatrist Judith Cohen, M.D., medical director of the Center for Traumatic Stress in Children & Adolescents at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh.
Many children experience trauma — an estimated 14 to 43 percent, according to the National Center for PTSD. Of those, as many as 15 percent of girls and 6 percent of boys develop PTSD. Children with PTSD may experience distressful thoughts, and memories of the trauma may occur without warning. They may also have trouble sleeping and nightmares (though they may not seem clearly tied to the event). Traumatized children may try to avoid people or objects that are reminders of the event and they may act more irritable, have angry outbursts, or be easily startled. They may regress, wet the bed or talk baby-talk, and they may experience physical symptoms, such as headaches and stomachaches. The symptoms can cause major distress and can impact how a child behaves or relates to family members.
To help a child heal from PTSD, treatment involves working with the child and parents and caregivers, creating a feeling of safety, helping the child to understand the condition, and encouraging the youngster to talk about his or her feelings (through art and play), to help develop relaxation and coping skills. Rehabilitation begins with building trust and it needs to be fun and engaging for young children, according to Dr. Cohen. Several different types of treatment are available for children with symptoms of PTSD and early intervention can be important in helping little ones cope with and heal from the effects of trauma.
For more information on understanding and helping children of all ages heal from traumatic events visit the National Child Traumatic Stress Network.
By Debbie Cohen, health writer, APA