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10 Causes Of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder In Children

No one wants the words "post-traumatic stress disorder" and "children" to appear in the same sentence. But recent events like the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting are reminders that children as well as adults can be exposed to events that cause this debilitating but highly treatable mental illness. Previous posts in this series explained why I advocate for children with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), explored 5 myths and misconceptions about PTSD in children, and defined both trauma and PTSD from a child's point of view.

The Causes Of PTSD In Children

Today's post explores some of the causes of PTSD in kids. While you read through the list, keep in mind the definition of trauma given by Margaret Vasquez, a clinical traumatologist who was traumatized in childhood and treated as a young adult. In the third post in this series, she defined trauma as “the the scary, painful and yucky stuff that happens.” Consider the trauma from a child's perspective. While some items on the list are "scary, painful, and yucky" for children and adults alike, others would create barely a blip on an adult's radar screen. But for kids who are small in stature, who often have little control over their environment, and who have fewer ways to escape trauma than adults, they can be "scary, painful, and yucky."

1. Medical Intervention:

This includes, surgeries, tests, and procedures. Though such interventions are for a child’s future good, from their perspective the event is scary. It hurts. The environment is unfamiliar. As an adult, our son gave this description of being wheeled into surgery when he was four. "I was laying on a hard gurney. They opened these big doors and wheeled me into this huge, cold, white room with glaring lights. I went a little crazy, so people kept leaning over and saying, 'It's okay. You're all right.' All I could think was, 'They don't have faces. None of the people have faces.' It was years before I realized they were wearing masks that covered their mouths and noses."

2. Abuse:

Any kind of abuse, whether physical, sexual, or emotional, as well as any behavior perceived as abuse by a child, can be traumatic. This includes bullying by adults or a child's peers.

3. Neglect:

Think about the horrendous stories of children kept in boxes, or rows and rows of babies confined to cribs in foreign orphanages. We now know that many of these children develop radical attachment disorder (RAD). But neglect at a very early age is also a cause of trauma.

4. Disasters:

Name your disaster–tornado, hurricane, earthquake, tsunamis, flood, volcano, a house fire, a bridge collapse–any natural event where a child feels he or the adults around them are helpless can be a source of trauma.

5. Violent Acts:

The Sandy Hook school shooting is one example of a violent act. Others include war, gang violence, witnessing a parent being abused, or children who are kidnapped.

6. Accidents:

Car, plane or train accidents are a cause of trauma for children who experience the event. Even a playground accident or accidents in the home or on a farm can cause trauma.

7. Divorce:

The break up of a marriage (or a long-term relationship between unmarried partners) is often much more traumatic than adults may realize. The greater the animosity between the parents and the less parents address the issue directly with children, the more likely it is to cause trauma.

8. The Death of a Significant Loved One:

Whenever someone important to child’s security dies, the event can cause trauma.

9. Moving:

Remember to look at moving from a child’s perspective. A child usually has no control over the move. Friends are gone. The familiar environment is gone. Parents are preoccupied. New school. New neighborhood. Having to make new friends. That can be pretty traumatic.

10. Adoption:

Yes, even this wonderful, loving act can be traumatic for kids. Adoption is a big change for a child. Even for newborns, the mothers' voices and body rhythms that were synced for nine months are no longer there. For older children, their whole life changes. For the most part they have no control over what's happening.

Trauma Doesn't = PTSD

Before you throw your hands up in despair, remember that trauma and PTSD are not the same thing. Only when symptoms of trauma remain more than three months after the initial event is it classified as PTSD. And if a child is diagnosed with PTSD, it can be treated easily and effectively. So breathe easy until the next post in this series, which identifies symptoms of PTSD in kids.

WRITTEN ON November 13, 2013 BY:


Jolene Philo's first child, Allen, was born with a life-threatening birth defect that required 7 surgeries from birth to age five. She taught students with special needs in a variety of settings during her 25 years in education. Her book, Different Dream Parenting: A Practical Guide to Raising a Child with Special Needs was released by DHP in November of 2011. She also blogs about special needs at