PTSD in Children and Teens
Everyone experiences stressful events – even children. However, when a stressful event is severe, it can cause post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). You may have heard this term when talking about people who have fought in wars, but it can happen to anyone who sees or experiences a traumatic event. A traumatic event is a stressful situation that makes a person fear for their or someone’s life/safety. Let’s take a closer look at how PTSD can affect children and teens.
What can cause PTSD?
There isn’t one event that can cause PTSD. It can happen after an injury or after a violent event. It can also stem from the death of a close family member or a friend or after a child or teen witnesses a traumatic event happening to someone else. Some events that could cause PTSD include:
- Really bad car accidents
- Disasters like a tornado, earthquake or fire
- Abuse or neglect
- Violence or crime – either being a victim or witnessing these events
- A close family member (like a mom or dad) or a friend having a serious illness
- The death of someone close to them
Note that the “T” in PTSD stands for “traumatic” because the event that causes PTSD is a traumatic one. So, for example, not all car accidents will cause PTSD and not every family illness will cause PTSD.
Does every person who experiences a traumatic event have PTSD?
Not necessarily. Experiencing a traumatic event doesn’t always mean that person will have PTSD. Getting help after a traumatic event can help an individual process the event and move past it.
How do I know if someone has PTSD?
A child or teen who may have PTSD might show some of these signs:
- Trouble sleeping
- Bad dreams
- Feeling sad, angry, anxious, hopeless, etc.
- Fidgeting or being restless
- Having angry outbursts
- Avoiding places, people or things associated with the trauma
- Easily startled or scared
- Reliving the traumatic event – either in their own thoughts or through their play
- Denying the event happened
Typically, these signs will happen for a long period of time, not just once or twice. For example, it’s common for children to have bad dreams from time to time. However, if these bad dreams start happening after a traumatic event and do not stop, then it may be PTSD.
Is there treatment for PTSD?
Seeing a mental health professional is important in treating PTSD. A mental health professional may be a therapist, psychologist, counselor, or psychiatrist. They will be able to help the child or teen work through and process the traumatic event in a safe and healthy way.
How can I help someone with PTSD?
If you know a child or teen who has PTSD, the best help is for them to see a mental health professional. If you are the parent, your child’s mental health professional may also have suggestions on how to best support your child.
In addition to the child getting help from a professional, the best way for you to help is to give them support. This may look like:
- Listening to them if they come to you to talk
- Giving them your undivided attention
- Helping them relax by doing something they enjoy
- Practicing deep breathing exercises together (breathe in for 3 counts, and breathe out for 5 counts)
If you think your child has PTSD, talk to your child’s doctor or healthcare team. You can also schedule an appointment with a Lurie Children’s specialist to help you and your child.
The Center for Childhood Resilience is also a great resource for parents, school professionals, community and city leaders, and more who are looking to support children’s mental health.
Lurie Children’s prides itself on being a reliable source of information on your child’s health and wellbeing — and the Sarah and Peer Pedersen Family Learning Center (PFLC) is here to help with that mission. Visit us online or on the 12th floor of the main hospital for more information on health topics like this one!
1. Hasan, S. “Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.” KidsHealth. Aug 2021. https://kidshealth.org/en/teens/ptsd.html.
2. “Post-traumatic Stress Disorder in Children.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 8 Mar. 2023. https://www.cdc.gov/childrensmentalhealth/ptsd.html.
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