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PTSD Symptoms in Children

Instructor: David White
PTSD is among the most complicated disorders to recognize, particularly in children living with the disorder. Through this lesson you will learn how PTSD manifests itself in children and explore some of the more common symptoms.

What is PTSD?

Our understanding of mental illness and emotional distress has come a long way over the last fifty or so years, yet it is still far from an exact science. We can now identify a wide variety of illnesses and symptoms, and have even developed many effective treatments. However, barriers to diagnosis and treatment remain, in part because symptoms of illness show up differently in different people. This is perhaps most evident when it comes to treating PTSD.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder that is caused by exposure to a traumatic event, particularly when the individual genuinely believes that their life is in danger. In many cases, 'trauma' is subjective, meaning that what one person finds traumatic, another might not. This makes predicting who is at risk for PTSD nearly impossible; however, there are circumstances in which the likelihood of it occurring is much higher. People who have been in combat or regularly experienced other types of violence, for example, have a much greater potential for developing PTSD.

The symptoms of the disorder are also hard to identify because there are many and they can manifest in different ways. Typically, symptoms appear immediately or shortly after the event and last longer than a month. Symptoms can include flashbacks, nightmares, panic attacks, irrational fear, and depression.

PTSD in Children

Given the complexity and unpredictability of PTSD, you can imagine how difficult the disorder is to treat. This difficulty becomes doubly challenging when treating children with the disorder. Unlike adults, children lack the insight, experience, and awareness that are often necessary to identify symptoms of dysfunction. Moreover, they may not know what it is that caused the trauma in the first place. These facts can make it difficult for them to recognize that something is wrong and to articulate to others what is happening.

The causes of PTSD in children can be similar to those in adults. Having said that, the leading cause of PTSD (65%) in children is neglect, which can include being left alone for long periods of time without food or personal contact. Other causes include physical, sexual, or psychological abuse, or witnessing acts of violence.

While the causes of PTSD might be similar for adults and children, the symptoms can be quite different. In fact, how the disorder manifests in children often depends on the age group.

PTSD in Children Between 5 and 12 Years of Age

Many people who experience a traumatic event either consciously or unconsciously block out the memories. This is a common defense mechanism in adults and children under 5 years of age that can make it difficult for the individual to remember the event with clarity. Children over the age of 5, on the other hand, are more likely to remember the event and will regularly experience spontaneous recurrent memories that are clear, intrusive, and disturbing.

While they may not have difficulty remembering the event, these children are more likely to confuse the sequence of events or believe that there were clues leading up to the traumatic event, which makes them think that they can prevent the trauma if they see the clues again. This belief can cause the child to become hyper-vigilant, or constantly on guard or worried, about perceived threats to their safety or the safety of others.

Finally, many of these children will unconsciously incorporate aspects of the traumatic event into their play activities. For example, if a child is experiencing physical or sexual abuse in their home, they may reenact the trauma in play, particularly when portraying a parent or other adult.

Young children may reenact elements of their trauma, including acting out aggressively or bullying.
aggression

PTSD in Adolescents and Teens

PTSD symptoms in adolescents and young adults tend to look much more like those demonstrated by adults, though they can be complicated by other factors. For example, flashbacks, or sudden, vivid memories of the trauma, are common with this age group, but rather than leading to fear, they might lead to impulsive aggression, or lashing out against parents or teachers.

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