PTSD in Children: Definition & Treatment

Instructor: Yolanda Williams

Yolanda has taught college Psychology and Ethics, and has a doctorate of philosophy in counselor education and supervision.

Post-traumatic stress disorder can happen after we experience a traumatic event. Learn more about post-traumatic stress disorder from this lesson, then test your knowledge with a quiz.

What Is PTSD?

Imagine that you are a psychologist. Your first meeting of the day is with an 8-year-old named Ian, who has just been placed with a new foster family. You find out that Ian was put in foster care after witnessing his father shoot his mother, although Ian has trouble remembering the event. Ian often draws images that depict a man physically abusing a woman and spends a lot of time playing shooting games. Ian has nightmares during which he reports seeing his father shoot his mother. After talking to Ian for about an hour, you diagnose him with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

Victims of floods can experience PTSD.

PTSD is a psychological disorder that occurs in a child after he/she experiences a traumatic event. Any event that a child views as potentially harmful or makes a child feel like their life is in danger can lead to PTSD. In Ian's case, witnessing violence against his mother caused his PTSD. Other causes include witnessing or experiencing sexual abuse, violent crimes, war, violence in the home or in the community, natural disasters, physical abuse, and car accidents. Sometimes just knowing that a parent or caregiver has experienced one of these events is enough to trigger PTSD in children.


Ian displayed several PTSD symptoms. First, Ian witnessed a traumatic event. Since then, he experiences time skew, which occurs when a person's memory of a traumatic event is not in the same order as when it occurred. Ian also has bad dreams about the shooting. Next, he creates drawings that depict his father abusing his mother and plays shooting games more often, which is called post-traumatic play. Post-traumatic play is when a child who experiences a trauma repetitively carries out some action related to the trauma.

Other symptoms of PTSD in children include re-experiencing the traumatic event through flashbacks, avoiding locations, people, or objects that remind the child of the traumatic event, trouble sleeping and concentrating, social withdrawal, being easily startled, increased irritability, and severe temper tantrums. Post-traumatic reenactment, which refers to integrating some part of the traumatic event into the child's regular routine (e.g. bringing a gun to school after witnessing a shooting), is also a symptom.

How Is PTSD in Children Treated?

As his psychologist, you decide to treat Ian by using the most effective method of treating PTSD in children: cognitive behavior therapy (CBT). CBT involves increasing Ian's awareness of his negative thoughts and behaviors, while helping Ian replace them with thoughts and behaviors that are positive. CBT also includes teaching Ian techniques and skills that can help him reduce his anxiety related to the traumatic even. Another option is play therapy, which involves using games, painting, and other play activities to help Ian work through his traumatic experience.

Play therapy can be an effective way to get kids to open up about their traumatic experiences.
play therapy

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