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Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a debilitating condition. 

It usually follows an event that the person finds physically or emotionally terrifying, causing the person who experienced the event to have persistent, frightening thoughts and memories, or flashbacks, of the ordeal.

Sometimes effects from the traumatic events can be delayed for six months or longer. When PTSD occurs soon after an event, the condition generally improves after three months.

Some people with PTSD have long-term effects and often feel chronically, emotionally numb. PTSD in children usually becomes a chronic disorder.

Post-traumatic stress disorder causes

Events that trigger PTSD may be:

  • Something that occurred in the person's life

  • Something that occurred in the life of someone close to him or her

  • Something the person witnessed

Examples of such stressful events that can lead to a child developing PTSD include:

  • Serious accidents, such as car or train wrecks

  • Invasive medical procedures for young children, usually under the age of six

  • Animal bites 

  • Natural disasters, such as floods or earthquakes

  • Man-made tragedies, such as bombings

  • Violent personal attacks, such as a mugging, rape, torture or kidnapping

  • Physical abuse

  • Sexual assault

  • Sexual molestation

  • Emotional abuse, bullying

  • Neglect

About 4 percent of children under age 18 are exposed to some form of trauma in their lifetime that leads to post-traumatic stress disorder.

A child's risk for developing PTSD depends on several factors, including:

  • The child's proximity and relationship to the trauma
  • The severity of the trauma
  • The duration of the traumatic event
  • The recurrence of the traumatic event
  • The resiliency of the child
  • The coping skills of the child
  • The support resources available to the child from the family and community following the event 

Post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms

Children and adolescents with PTSD experience extreme emotional, mental, and physical distress when exposed to situations that remind them of the traumatic event. Some may repeatedly relive the trauma in the form of nightmares and disturbing recollections during the day and may also experience any, or all, of the following:

  • Sleep disturbances

  • Depression

  • Feeling jittery or "on guard"

  • Being easily startled

  • Loss of interest in things previously enjoyed

  • Trouble feeling affectionate

  • Irritability, aggressiveness or violence

  • Avoiding certain places or situations that bring back memories

  • Flashbacks or intrusive images

  • Losing touch with reality

  • Reenactment of an event for a period of seconds or hours or, very rarely, days

  • Problems in school; difficulty concentrating

  • Worry about dying at an early age

  • Regressive behaviors; acting younger than their age 

  • Physical symptoms, such as headaches or stomachaches

Diagnosis and treatment

Not every child or adolescent who experiences a trauma develops PTSD.

For a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder to be made, symptoms need to persist for more than one month and adversely affect the child's life and functioning.

PTSD can occur at any age, including childhood, and may be accompanied by:

  • Depression

  • Substance abuse

  • Anxiety

The length of the condition varies. Some people recover within six months, others have symptoms that last much longer.

A child psychiatrist or other qualified mental health professional usually diagnoses PTSD in children or adolescents following a comprehensive psychiatric evaluation.

PTSD is treatable. Detecting it early can reduce the severity of the symptoms, enhance normal growth and improve quality of life. Depending on your child's specific need, treatment may include:

  • Medications
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy
  • Family therapy

Recovery from PTSD is variable and dependent on the adolescent's internal strength, coping skills, ability to "bounce back" and the family environment.

Prevention of post-traumatic stress disorder

Preventive measures to reduce the incidence or lessen the chance of traumatic experiences in children include:

  • Teach children that it is OK to say no to anyone who tries to touch his or her body or make him or her feel uncomfortable

  • Provide appropriate support and counseling for children and adolescents who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event

  • Encourage prevention programs within your community or local school system

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Outpatient Psychiatry Clinic


Behavioral Health Day Treatment Programs: PHP/IOP

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