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Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in Children

What is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Children?
Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in children and adolescents occurs as a result of a child's exposure to traumatic events that are life-threatening or perceived to be likely to cause serious injury to self or others. In PTSD, the child or adolescent responds with intense fear, helplessness, or horror. Traumatic events can take many forms, including physical or sexual assaults, natural disasters, traumatic death of a loved one, or emotional abuse or neglect. Severe emotional trauma has widespread effects on children's development. These effects include undermining children's sense of security in a reasonable and safe world in which they can grow and explore, as well as causing a child to not believe that their parents can protect them from harm. The premature damage of these beliefs can have profound negative consequences on development.

Traumatized children and adolescents are frequently preoccupied with danger and vulnerability, sometimes leading to misperceptions of danger, even in situations that are not threatening.  A child's risk of developing PTSD is related to the seriousness of the trauma, whether the trauma is repeated, the child's proximity to the trauma, and his/her relationship to the victim(s).  There is research that indicates that PTSD may affect brain development and functioning in developing children and adolescents.  

Children who experience trauma may initially show agitated or confused behavior.  They also may show intense fear, helplessness, anger, sadness, horror or denial.  Children who experience repeated trauma may develop a kind of emotional numbing to deaden or block the pain and trauma. This is called dissociation.  Children with PTSD avoid situations or places that remind them of the trauma. They may also become less responsive emotionally, depressed, withdrawn, and more detached from their feelings.  

How Prevalent is PTSD in Children? 
Studies show that about 15-43% of girls and 14-43% of boys go through at least one trauma. Of those children and teens who have had a trauma, 3-15% of girls and 1-6% of boys develop PTSD. Rates of PTSD can fluctuate, depending on the type of trauma.  

What Causes PTSD in Children?
Any traumatic event can cause a child to develop PTSD.  However, the disorder most often results from traumas such as: experiencing physical abuse or neglect; sexual abuse; witnessing domestic violence; sustaining a severe injury or being in a serious accident; experiencing a natural disaster; witnessing  a trauma of a loved one or friend; witnessing or experiencing an act of violence outside the home, for example, a school shooting or kidnapping. 

Children will develop PTSD if they perceive the experience as life-threatening or extremely dangerous. There is some evidence that indicates a genetic predisposition to PTSD in children.

What are Some of the Signs and Symptoms of PTSD in Children? 
Children with PTSD may re-experience the traumatic event in several ways.  These include, but are not limited to:  frequent memories of the event; play in which some or all of the trauma is repeated over and over (seen in young children); terrifying and upsetting dreams; feeling that the traumatic event is happening again (flashbacks); emotional or physical symptoms that develop if the child is reminded of the traumatic event.  

Additional symptoms may include worrying about death or dying, especially at an early age; headaches or stomachaches; difficulty with attention and concentration; extreme and sudden emotional reactions; separation anxiety; fear of the dark; hypervigilance; regression, such as clingy or whiny behavior or thumb sucking; irritability; angry outbursts; and difficulty falling or staying asleep.

The symptoms of PTSD may last from several months to many years.  

Getting the Help you Need
Treatment for PTSD in children and adolescents is complex, ongoing and depends very much on the child’s individual symptoms and circumstances.  Treatment provided by licensed, competent mental health professionals, which include psychotherapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, play therapy, and family treatment have all shown to be excellent methods of treating PTSD in children and adolescents.  Medications, such as anti-depressants or mood stabilizers, provided by licensed child psychiatrists, may be utilized as well.  

AT OHEL, we provide psychotherapy and medication consultation.  The professionals at OHEL can teach your child or adolescent skills that will help them cope with the traumatic event. Our child therapists can work on changing the way the child thinks about the event, help them address the worry and anxiety associated with the event, and help them face the fears in a safe and supportive environment. Our goal is to help children and adolescents with PTSD return to a normal, healthy life.  

Remember, at OHEL, we are only a phone call or a click away from your road to recovery.

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