8 Symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in Children and Teens
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a much more common condition in children and teens than most adults want to believe. But, the facts and figures compiled at the government’s National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) show that a significant percentage of children have been exposed to trauma and later developed PTSD.
How can parents and other adults help children and teens living with undiagnosed, untreated PTSD find the help they need? An understanding of the symptoms of PTSD is a good place to start. Some of the symptoms in children and teens are the same as those for babies and toddlers. These include hypervigilance, emotional distress when reminded of the initial trauma, fear or avoidance of places that remind them of the event, nightmares, and other sleep issues.
But other symptoms are more common in children over the age of 3 and into the teen years. Today’s focus is on those symptoms.
Once they develop sophisticated language skills, children may begin to describe unexpected, intrusive thoughts about the initial trauma. This is common for the first few weeks or months after a trauma. But thoughts that continue long after that time period are a symptom of PTSD.
2. Physical Reaction
When reminded of the initial trauma, older children may complain of vague illnesses like stomachaches and headaches. The pain is very real to the child, even though no underlying cause can be diagnosed. Adults may discount the complaints as “all in the head,” when in truth, the complaints are a very real symptom of PTSD.
3. Denial of Event
Sometimes, children old enough to clearly remember a traumatic event vehemently deny it ever occurred. They would rather bury their pain than recall the reality of the trauma endured. Left buried and unprocessed, these painful mental wounds fester and develop into post-traumatic stress disorder. Children displaying this symptom need treatment, the sooner the better.
4. Difficulty Concentrating
Children suffering from PTSD are often misdiagnosed with attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD). What looks like ADHD is a response to trauma triggers. They respond with fear and try to move on to something that seems safer. When they encounter another trigger, they move on again.
5. Startle Easily
Depending on the type of trauma experienced, children may jump when they hear loud noises or become skittish in situations similar to the initial trauma. Children who have suffered physical abuse may flinch when an adult’s hand comes near the face.
6. A Foreshortened Sense of the Future
Lenore Terr documented this symptom in her book, Too Scared to Cry. The book describes interviews with 26 California school children who were kidnapped, buried alive, and eventually escaped in 1976. In periodic interviews after the trauma, Terr asked children what they wanted to be when they grew up. Many of them consistently answered that they didn’t bother thinking about that because they expected to die young.
7. Self-destructive Choices, Irritability, and Impulsiveness
These behaviors are often a direct, though unconscious, response to a child’s foreshortened sense of the future. Because kids with PTSD don’t think they’ll live long, why should they bother making safe choices? Why should they try to get along with anyone? Why should they save their money for the future? They feel like they have no future. So they make self-destructive choices, don’t try to maintain relationships, and act or spend impulsively.
8. Depression or an Overwhelming Sense of Sadness and Hopelessness
Again, this symptom has its roots in the foreshortened sense of the future mindset. The facility where my son received treatment, Intensive Trauma Therapy, Inc in West Virginia, referred to this symptom as “an impending sense of doom.” That mindset is the perfect environment for depression, sadness, and hopelessness to flourish.
Of course, many children without PTSD exhibit behaviors similar to the symptoms listed above. So when should parents or other adults who observe any of these symptoms in a child seek professional treatment?
- When they know the child has experienced significant trauma in the past, even the distant past.
- When the symptoms persist more than three months after the initial trauma.
- When adults suspect trauma occurred and have observed several symptoms.
- When the child’s behavior is significantly different from what is normal in other kids in the same age group.
Remember, treatment for children is highly effective. For more information about symptoms and treatment of PTSD in children, check out these resources:
Books on Post-Traumatic Stress disorder
- Trauma Through a Child’s Eyes by Peter A. Levine and Maggie Kline
- Trauma-Proofing Your Kids by Peter A. Levine and Maggie Kline
- The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog: And Other Stories by Bruce Perry
- Different Dream Parenting: A Practical Guide to Raising a Child with Special Needs by Jolene Philo
- Wounded Children, Healing Homes: How Traumatized Children Impact Adoptive and Foster Families by Jayne Schooler