What Is PTSD?
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) develops in response to a traumatic or life-threatening event that is outside the normal range of human experience. It can arise when a person (child, adolescent, or adult) experiences or witnesses an event such as any of the following:
- Sexual abuse
- Life-threatening injury or illness
- Being threatened with a weapon
- Natural disaster (e.g., tornado, hurricane, earthquake)
- Early and traumatic loss of a parent
Children who develop PTSD may have both psychological and physical symptoms. The disorder often occurs along with other conditions like depression, substance abuse, memory and thinking problems, and other problems of physical and mental health. The symptoms may impact the child’s ability to carry on a normal life because he or she may be unable to do things like go to school or maintain friendships.
What Are The Signs & Symptoms of Child Trauma?
Some symptoms of child trauma and PTSD may become apparent immediately, and some may be delayed until adulthood. The symptoms of PTSD may last from several months to many years and may include the following:
- Agitation, hyperarousal
- Fear and anxiety
- Feeling helpless
- Anger and irritability
- Sadness and depression
- Shock, apathy, or numbness
- Withdrawal, detachment
- Flashbacks and memories of the event
- Avoidance of specific places and situations
- Acting out the event in play situations
- Nightmares and disturbing dreams
- Dreading that the event will happen again
- Fearing imminent death
- Being less interested in activities that once were enjoyable
- Headaches, stomachaches, or other physical symptoms
- Inability to concentrate
How Is PTSD Different From Normal Reactions To Stress?
Not every child who experiences or witnesses a life threatening or traumatic act develops PTSD. After such an experience, most children experience the symptoms of acute stress. This begins with a sense of numbness or shock and perhaps confusion, sadness, and anxiety. They may have any of the symptoms on the preceding list. These signs of acute stress are normal, and if they disappear after about a month they are not PTSD. If they worsen and last longer than a month, PTSD could be the diagnosis.
Why Do Some Children Development PTSD While Others Do Not?
Several factors determine whether a person suffers from PTSD following a traumatic experience. The most important ones are:
- The nature and the extent of the trauma. The more horrific the experience, the greater the impact it will have on anyone who experiences it.
- Coping skills. Some people have developed a better ability to cope with stress and will have fewer and milder symptoms.
- Previous experiences. Others who may have experienced other traumatic events in the past may be at greater risk.
- Current stress level. When a child or adolescent is already experiencing great stress in his or her life, he or she is likely to be more vulnerable in the face of a traumatic event. For example, a child whose parents are divorcing and whose family is already in an upheaval and then experiences an earthquake is more likely to develop an extreme response like PTSD.
- Support system. Those who have parents, teachers, and others who will listen and offer a shoulder to lean on will have a much easier time recovering from a traumatic experience.
- Family and social environment. Victims who are made to feel ashamed or guilty are much more likely to experience PTSD. Those who are treated with empathy and understanding have a much better chance of complete recovery.
What Treatments Are There For PTSD?
- Individual psychotherapy. A therapist who specializes in working with children who are victims of trauma can help the patient talk about the event. The patient can also be encouraged to write about it. The therapist may use behavior modification techniques and cognitive therapy to alleviate the child’s fears and worries.
- Family therapy. The entire family is affected when a child experiences trauma. A skilled family therapist can help family members provide support for the victim and deal with their own feelings.
- Support groups. A support group that includes other kids who have had similar experiences, and who are struggling with similar problems, can be very healing.
- Eye movement desensitization reprocessing. EMDR is a fairly new therapeutic tool that has been shown to be effective in treating victims of trauma. A licensed, experienced therapist who has been trained in this technique may be able to relieve the symptoms of PTSD.
- Relaxation training. Since many victims of trauma have a difficult time relaxing, special training may be helpful.
- Physical exercise. An active exercise program is an excellent way to relax and relieve stress.
- Medication. Antidepressant medications can help relieve the symptoms of depression and anxiety and encourage sleep.
- Early treatment is best. Ideally, the victim of trauma should receive supportive treatment at the earliest possible time. Victims benefit from the support of their family members, friends, and mental health professionals. The most important element of any treatment plan is to create a sense of safety.