Most people experience some traumatic events in their life from time to time, and this includes children and teenagers. Some experts believe that up to 40% of adolescents and children will go through a minimum of one traumatic event at some point in their lives, but while the majority of people bounce back to normal after a short while, others find it harder to cope with everything that they have experienced. Those people sometimes go on to develop a mental health condition called PTSD.
There are a number of traumatic events which can trigger Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in teens and adults. These often include accidents, physical violence, wars, natural disasters, and abuse. Teenagers and children may sometimes have been the victim of these events themselves or alternatively, they might have seen them happening to somebody else. Either way, PTSD can be the result, and it can be extremely difficult to cope with.
Whether someone develops post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) will depend on a number of factors. These include:
- How severe the trauma was
- How often it occurs
- How their family reacts to that event
Someone who has PTSD feels they cannot escape from the impact the trauma has had on their life. They, therefore, try avoiding anything which reminds them of the event including situations, people and even emotions. Sometimes, they experience flashbacks or memories of the traumatic event or experience nightmares which feel real. Those ongoing reminders make it hard to live a normal life, especially in the case of children and teens who find it hard to express their feelings and emotions.
What Are The Common Symptoms Of PTSD In Young People?
There are several symptoms of PTSD which are commonly seen in teenagers and children. These include:
- Avoiding any situation which calls to mind the event
- Avoiding people, places, and activities which remind them of the trauma
- Struggling to remember key elements of the event
- Experiencing flashbacks or nightmares about the event
- Playing in ways which recall or repeat the event
- Acting aggressively or impulsively
- Feeling anxious or nervous on a regular basis
- Feeling emotionally numb
- Struggling to focus in school
- Negative mood and thoughts since the trauma
- Ongoing worries about the world being an unsafe place
- Distrusting other people
- Self-blaming for the event
- Losing all interest in activities which they once enjoyed
- Feeling shame, anger, guilt or fear about the event
- Feeling estranged or detached from other people
- Struggling to feel positive
- Ongoing physical reactions or anxious feelings
- Difficulty in sleeping
- Feeling angry and irritable
- Constantly looking for signs of danger
- Being easily startled
Although the signs and symptoms of PTSD are similar in teenagers to those seen in adults, it may look slightly different in younger children. They may be more fearful and become regressive, reenacting their trauma through their play.
Usually, the symptoms of PTSD begin about a month following the traumatic event. However, in some cases, they appear many months or years after the event. Once the symptoms have appeared they usually carry on for many years. Sometimes, they go away and then come back at a later stage when another event brings back memories of the traumatic experience.
Some people who have PTSD fail to get the professional help they need because they believe feeling frightened following a traumatic experience is completely normal. Others don’t recognize that there is a link between the symptoms they are experiencing and the traumatic event that occurred. They, therefore, don’t seek counseling which could help them to return to a more normal lifestyle.
Family members, friends, school counselors, doctors and teachers who know the teenager or child well may be able to play a vital role in spotting the symptoms of PTSD.
What Causes PTSD In Teens And Children?
There are many causes of PTSD in teenagers and children, and while some of those causes would be painful and frightening for anyone, whether an adult or a child, others would not cause much of a problem for an adult, even though they were very distressing to a child. It can, therefore, be difficult in some cases to spot PTSD in younger children since the cause is not immediately obvious to their parents or caregivers.
Here are just five possible causes of PTSD in young people.
1. Medical Treatments
One common cause of PTSD in children and teenagers is medical intervention. While, as adults, we know that medical treatment was essential to help the child or to benefit them in the future, from the child’s perspective they were going through a frightening event which distressed them greatly. Whether it involved tests, procedures or surgeries, medical treatment can be extremely scary to a child who is possibly in pain and in an unfamiliar and disturbing environment, surrounded by strangers who are poking and prodding at them. The sight of unknown adults wearing strange clothes and masks can be upsetting and possibly being separated from their parents while being taken in for treatment can cause long-term trauma.
Abuse comes in many forms – emotional, sexual, physical – and it is something which causes PTSD in a wide range of people, adults and children alike. Children may perceive certain behaviors as abuse even if they would not be perceived by an adult in that way, including bullying. Children who have been neglected from an early age may also experience trauma and PTSD from those unpleasant experiences.
3. Disasters And Accidents
Natural disasters such as tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, volcanos, fires and tsunamis are all extremely distressing for anyone who is involved in them. For children, they can be doubly frightening since the adults who usually protect them are also completely helpless to prevent the disaster from occurring and to protect the child from the consequences.
Accidents of any kind are also commonly linked with cases of PTSD in both adults and children. Train, airplane and car accidents are relatively common occurrences and can be extremely traumatic for a child. Sometimes, even small-scale accidents such as those inside the home or in the school playground can be traumatic and cause an ongoing case of PTSD.
Acts of violence such as those witnessed during wars, in gang violence, and in school shootings are all extreme and are very traumatic to those who are involved. Sometimes, the act of violence which has traumatized a child will be witnessing domestic abuse at home or even being the victim of violence themselves.
5. Changes In Family Circumstances
Nobody at any age likes dramatic changes in their lifestyle, but for children, it can be traumatic. If a marriage or long-term relationship breaks up, the children of that relationship can be left with PTSD, especially if their parents have a lot of animosity towards each other. If a child witnesses a lot of shouting or aggressive behavior between their parents, they are unlikely to understand the reasons why and this confusion leads to ongoing distress and trauma.
Often, in the case of a parental split, the child will need to move home, sometimes to a new district, city or even part of the country, and this is a huge upheaval in a young life. One parent will usually be left behind and this separation as well as leaving a familiar home and friends can easily trigger ongoing trauma.
Other changes in family circumstances which can result in PTSD for a child or teenager include being taken into care. Being taken away from the home, family and life that they have known and being placed in a home or with strange foster parents can be extremely difficult to cope with.
Of course, the loss of a parent, sibling, close family member or friend can also naturally trigger PTSD. Small children struggle to understand the concept of death and can feel abandoned by their loved one. This leads to excessive worry, fear, and anxiety about dying or about losing other people in their lives.
Does Trauma Always Cause PTSD?
Although trauma can cause PTSD, that isn’t always the case. Some symptoms of trauma are natural after a distressing event occurs, but usually, those symptoms begin to subside after a few weeks or months. It is only if those symptoms continue for over 3 months following the event that it is said to be post-traumatic stress disorder.
Not everybody who has a traumatic experience will develop PTSD. The risks of developing PTSD and the severity of its symptoms are based on a number of factors including any history of mental health problems, the level of social support the individual has, their family history, their unique personality, the level of stress in their lives and the type of traumatic event that they went through. Young people who have gone through the most serious types of trauma are most likely to have severe PTSD symptoms, and those who experience trauma frequently are even more likely to develop the condition.
How Can PTSD Be Treated In Teenagers And Children?
It’s vital to bear in mind that even if a child or teenager exhibits some symptoms of trauma following a distressing event in their life, there is a very good chance that those symptoms will reduce and eventually disappear within a few weeks or months. However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take action and talk to a doctor or mental health specialist about their symptoms. This is particularly important if those symptoms continue in the long term without any sign of improvement or if they get worse over time.
PTSD can be treated in both children and teenagers as long as the sufferer gets the right kind of help as quickly as possible. There are several forms of treatment including:
- CBT or cognitive behavioral therapy is a common type of talking therapy. Therapists are able to use a specific style of this therapy focused on the trauma to work with teenagers and children who have gone through a distressing event. This treatment will help the sufferer to identify their illogical or irrational thoughts about the traumatic event and then to find ways to correct those thoughts. CBT also involves teaching the sufferer about coping techniques to handle stress and anxiety as well as relaxation techniques.
- Play therapy is a popular form of therapy for young children who are struggling to express their reaction to a traumatic event. Play therapy helps them to communicate the way that they feel and their understanding of the events. Art therapy and games are some of the interventions which can be used to help young children process the trauma and learn how to cope with life.
- EMDR or Eye moment desensitization and reprocessing is a helpful technique which is starting to gather popularity amongst mental health professionals. This therapy incorporates using guided eye movement exercises which are carried out as the child recalls the event then works through their emotional responses to the event.
- Although there isn’t any type of medication which can cure PTSD, anti-anxiety medications and antidepressants may relieve the symptoms for some children. Medications are best used in conjunction with talking therapies to achieve the best results.
It’s important to be aware that in many cases, symptoms of PTSD can co-occur with other forms of mental health disorders or can lead to other problems in teenagers and children like self-harm, risky behavior, and substance abuse. It’s possible that those issues too must be addressed during treatment to protect the child and enable them to fully recover.
Addressing PTSD In Young People
It is very worrying to observe symptoms of PTSD in a child or teenager, especially if you aren’t sure how to help. However, it’s important to remember that it is a treatable condition. With the right support and professional care, PTSD sufferers can live a full and happy life, free from the distressing symptoms that they experience. Whatever the cause of a child’s PTSD, it can be addressed and resolved. What matters is that the first step taken is to consult a medical professional and begin the journey towards therapy.