Understanding Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a condition that can occur after a person experiences a traumatic event.  Events such as abuse, a car accident, loss of a loved one, natural disasters, school shootings, living in a dangerous neighborhood, and physical trauma are among some of the most common reasons children develop PTSD.

Symptoms of PTSD usually begin within three months of the traumatic event but can lie dormant for years.

Symptoms of PTSD

  • Flashbacks – reliving the traumatic event
  • Nightmares
  • Actively avoiding things that may trigger traumatic thoughts
  • Feeling tense or anxious
  • Increase in startle response
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Irritability
  • Difficulty concentrating

In order for PTSD to be considered a disorder, these symptoms must be affecting relationships, behaviors or academics.  Young children express these symptoms somewhat differently than teens and adults. Children are reported to show an increase in bedwetting and may cling more to trusted adults. Children will commonly act out the traumatic event through play. For example, if a child was involved in a severe car accident, he might continually crash a toy car.  Teens share many of the same symptoms as adults, but may also display disrespectful or oppositional behaviors.

There are three primary risk factors leading to PTSD symptoms:

  1. The severity of the trauma.
  2. How parents reacted to the trauma
  3. How close or far away the child was to the trauma.

Many children and teens diagnosed with PTSD are subjected to abuse in the home. According to the National Children’s Alliance, there are over 3 million reports to Child Protective Services each year. Of these reports over 30% are verifiable and are addressed. Most of these reports are made due to neglect or physical abuse allegations. Children who regularly observe violence in the home, at school, or on the playground, can be dramatically impacted by their experiences. These instances can greatly affect how a child perceives their safety. They may feel threatened while at home, at school, or with friends.

Over one-third of children will experience some sort of traumatic event, and symptoms of PTSD may arise after the event.  How and when they receive treatment is key.

Treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder


PTSD can be diagnosed by a mental health professional, such as a therapist, psychologist, or a psychiatrist. The goal of treatment is to regain feelings of control over life while eliminating symptoms. There are many ways to achieve this goal. Some of the most common therapy models used are cognitive behavioral therapy, interpersonal therapy, and exposure therapy.  Cognitive behavioral therapy can help link the traumatic event to core beliefs and overcome them by reframing the experience. Interpersonal therapy relies on the support of others while exposure therapy will gradually desensitize the traumatic triggers. Young children benefit from play therapy. In play therapy, the child is able to act out the traumatic event and rationalize their experience with support and guidance from trusted adults.  Education, support, and safety are important to a successful recovery. Teens benefit most from talk therapy. They are able to express their fears, anger, sadness etc. in an environment that is safe and controlled. Many teens living with PTSD may find it difficult to control anger and impulses. Addressing these issues early on will help develop coping skills needed to manage their daily lives.


Some medications have been proven effective to help lessen the effects of PTSD symptoms.  Antidepressants are most commonly prescribed to treat PTSD in addition to therapy.


A major concern for those with PTSD is the prevalence of self-harm and suicidal thoughts. If you or your child feel any motivation to self-harm after a traumatic event, get help immediately.  Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1(800)273-8255 or visit an emergency room.

After experiencing a traumatic event, act quickly to receive help.  Waiting to seek treatment may worsen PTSD symptoms over time.  If your child experienced a traumatic event, be aware of some of the alternate symptoms of PTSD that children more commonly express. The Heads Up Checkup symptom checker can help determine if you or your child has symptoms of PTSD.

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