Understanding Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in Children

Children can endure great sorrow and even trauma in their lives. For some children, the distress of certain events may be too much to bear. As a result, they may develop symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Fortunately, there is hope for children who suffer trauma. Ask a trusted counselor or healthcare provider for help.

Mother consoling daughter, Daughter looking very sad.

What is posttraumatic stress disorder?

Posttraumatic stress disorder may follow a severe trauma. This may be something the child experiences directly. It may also be an event your child sees or hears about. Even violent movies or TV programs can have a traumatic effect. Symptoms of PTSD often appear a few weeks after the trauma. But sometimes they may occur months, or even years, later.

Symptoms of PTSD in children

If your child has PTSD, he or she may have:

  • Terrifying nightmares or “flashbacks” about the event. Flashbacks are vivid memories that seem as real as the trauma itself.

  • A fear of people or places connected with the event. Your child may also seem withdrawn and unfeeling.

  • Angry outbursts. Your child also might have trouble sleeping or concentrating, or seem on edge. He or she might complain of headaches or other health problems.

  • Reactions to trauma cues that re-trigger the event. Sights, sounds, people, smells, and places that remind the child of the event can result in repetitive play and a reenactment of the traumatic event or themes of the traumatic event (such as someone dying).

Treating PTSD

Children with PTSD can be greatly helped by special types of individual and group therapy as well as by certain medicines. A form of therapy called trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy is effective in both individual and group settings for treating PTSD in children. Children with PTSD can benefit from certain other forms of therapy also. Being with other children may make your child feel less alone and will help your child work through his or her pain. Medicines may help control symptoms such as anxiety, insomnia, and depression associated with PTSD and help the child live a more normal life.

What you can do

You can play a large part in your child’s healing process. Accept your child's emotions and encourage your child to share his or her feelings with you or a trusted professional. Offer your love and support. Seek and maintain professional mental health support for your child. Recovery may take some time. But don’t lose hope. With help, your child can look forward to a full, happy life.

Children are at risk for PTSD after the following:

  • A rape or sexual assault

  • A car accident or plane crash

  • Physical or mental abuse

  • Natural disasters such as earthquakes or floods

  • The sudden death of a parent or other loved one