Many people will experience traumatic events in their lives, including children and teens. Some researchers estimate that as many as 40% of children and adolescents will experience at least one traumatic event in their lifetime. While most people are able to “bounce back” from the event after a few days, weeks, or months, others struggle to cope with the experience and the memory of the trauma. These people, including children and teens, can develop what is known as PTSD, or Post-traumatic stress disorder.
Traumatic events often include physical violence, an accident, a natural disaster, war, or sexual abuse. Children or teens may have experienced these events themselves, or they may have witnessed them happen to someone else.
Whether a child or teen develops PTSD depends on many factors, including the severity of the trauma, how frequently it occurs, and how family members react to the event. A child or adolescent with PTSD feels that they are unable to escape the impact of the trauma. They try to avoid people or situations that remind them of the event. Sometimes they will experience memories or “flashbacks” of the event, or they may have nightmares about it that feel very real. These constant reminders make living day-to-day life a real challenge, especially for young people who might struggle to express what they’re feeling and experiencing.
Common PTSD Symptoms in Children and Teens
- Avoiding situations that make them recall the traumatic event
- Experiencing nightmares or flashbacks about the trauma
- Playing in a way that repeats or recalls the trauma
- Acting impulsively or aggressively
- Feeling nervous or anxious frequently
- Experiencing emotional numbness
- Having trouble focusing at school
Treating PTSD in Children and Teens
It’s important to remember that if your child does exhibit trauma symptoms, chances are they will decrease and disappear within a few months. This does not mean, however, that you should not consult with a mental health professional for an assessment and to discuss treatment options when symptoms occur. PTSD is treatable, so never hesitate to ask for help and see what works best. Here are some common treatment options for children with Post-traumatic stress disorder.
Cognitive behavioral therapy – CBT is one of the most common forms of “talk therapy,” and therapists can use a trauma-focused style of the therapy to work with children and adults. A trauma-focused CBT therapist helps a child identity and correct irrational or illogical thoughts they might have about the trauma itself or people and situations they encounter in everyday life. CBT also typically includes psychoeducation about relaxation and coping techniques for stress.
Play therapy – This type of therapy can work especially well for younger children who struggle to communicate their reactions to the trauma and understanding of what happened. Play therapists use art therapy, games, and other interventions to help a child process a trauma and cope resiliently with life.
Eye moment desensitization and reprocessing – EMDR is a technique that is increasingly in popularity among mental health professionals. The therapy incorporates guided eye movement exercises while a child recalls the traumatic event and works through cognitions and emotional responses they have about it.
Medication – There is no medication that “cures” PTSD, but sometimes antidepressants and anti-anxiety medication can help relieve symptoms in some children while they are also seeing a therapist.
PTSD symptoms frequently co-occur with other types of mental illness or lead to other issues with children and teens, including substance use, risky behaviors, and self-injury. These issues may need to be addressed in treatment as well to protect your child and help them achieve a full recovery.
As a parent, you want nothing but the best for your child. So watching them be “held hostage” by trauma symptoms can make you feel powerless and clueless about where you should begin. The best place to begin is by listening to your child and choosing not to ignore their symptoms and struggles. Ally yourself with friends, family, and professionals who support both you and your child. Search for resources at your child’s school, the doctor’s office, or your local community center that can get you pointed in the right direction.
Remember, PTSD is treatable, and your child can have a healthy body and mind, free of symptoms and fully in control of their own destiny. What steps can you take today to help your child move past trauma and towards their future?