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Post Traumatic Stress Disorder In Children


What is post traumatic stress disorder?

Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a condition that may occur after your child has experienced a traumatic situation or event. This event may have caused him to feel intense fear, pain, or sorrow. He may think he or someone close to him is going to get hurt or die. He may also continue to feel helpless after the event. These feelings affect his daily activities and relationships.

What causes PTSD?

  • An accident
  • A crime done to your child or a crime he may have seen, such as a robbery
  • A serious disease, such as cancer, or the death of a loved one
  • A natural disaster, such as a flood, earthquake, hurricane, or tornado
  • Physical or sexual abuse
  • Violence, war, or terrorism

What are the signs and symptoms of PTSD?

Signs and symptoms of PTSD in a child may be divided into 3 groups:

  • Reliving or re-experiencing the event:
    • Your child acts out the event during play or feels like the event is taking place again.
    • Your child has nightmares.
    • Your child has flashbacks (recalling the past) or images of the event in his mind.
  • Avoidance:
    • Your child avoids talking about the traumatic event.
    • Your child avoids activities, places, or people that may remind him of the traumatic event.
    • Your child has trouble spending time with friends and family or lose interest in doing enjoyable things.
    • Your child does not express his feelings or acts younger than his age.
    • Your child sees himself as one with no hope for the future. He may also worry about dying at an early age.
  • Increased arousal (overreaction) or mood swings:
    • Your child is easily stressed or hurt emotionally.
    • Your child is afraid of being separated from you or clings to you more than usual.
    • Your child has sudden feelings of sadness, fear, guilt, or anger.
    • Your child feels nervous, panicked, or irritable.
    • Your child has problems in school or trouble paying attention.
    • Your child has problems sleeping.

How is PTSD diagnosed?

Healthcare providers will ask you or your child questions about his symptoms and use a guide to diagnose PTSD. Your child has PTSD if he has had all of the following for at least 1 month:

  • Your child has seen, faced, or experienced an event that involved serious injury, near death, or death.
  • Your child's response to the event was great fear, helplessness, or horror.
  • Your child has at least 1 constant symptom of re-experiencing the traumatic event.
  • Your child has at least 3 symptoms of avoidance.
  • Your child has at least 2 hyperarousal symptoms.
  • Your child's symptoms cause distress and affect his daily activities, school, and relationships.

How is PTSD treated?

  • Cognitive behavior therapy: This therapy helps your child learn to face his feared object or situation slowly and carefully. This may be done alone with the therapist or with family members. Your child will also learn to control his mental and physical reactions of fear.
    • Cognitive restructuring: Healthcare providers help your child learn which thoughts cause anxiety. His therapist helps him see the event differently so he can change his thoughts and decrease his anxiety.
    • Exposure or desensitization: This therapy helps your child face a feared object, person, or situation. Fantasy or real-life situations are used with this therapy. The goal of desensitization therapy is to help decrease your child's fear or anxiety.
  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing: This is also called EMDR and is a type of exposure therapy. Healthcare providers help your child's eyes move back and forth while he imagines the trauma.
  • Relaxation therapy: Relaxation therapy teaches your child how to calm his body and mind. The goal is to have your child feel less physical stress and have less emotional stress. Healthcare providers will teach your child ways to relax, such as deep breathing, meditation, relaxing muscles, music, or biofeedback.
  • Medicine:
    • Antianxiety: These medicines help your child feel less nervous.
    • Antidepressants: These medicines decrease or stop the symptoms of depression and other behavior problems.
    • Sedatives: These medicines help your child stay calm and relaxed. They may also help him sleep better at night.

What are the risks of PTSD?

PTSD can get worse if your child is not treated. Your child's illness could make it hard for him to do well in school or to get along with others. It may also affect the way your child eats and sleeps, which may cause him to feel sick. If your child is not treated, he may hurt himself or others.

What can I do to help my child?

  • Talk openly about what happened and listen to your child's worries. Assure your child that all family members are safe.
  • Teach people who are close to your child about PTSD, including his teacher. Work together to help your child.

Where can I find support and more information?

  • National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), Public Information & Communication Branch
    6001 Executive Boulevard, Room 8184, MSC 9663
    Bethesda , MD 20892-9663
    Phone: 1- 301 - 443-4513
    Phone: 1- 866 - 615-6464
    Web Address:

When should I contact my child's healthcare provider?

  • You and your child cannot make it to your next appointment.
  • Your child is not sleeping well or is sleeping too much.
  • You feel you cannot help your child at home.
  • Your child is taking antidepressants and his depression gets worse, or he talks about harming himself or committing suicide. Call if he begins to behave differently.
  • You have questions or concerns about your child's condition or care.

When should I seek immediate care or call 911?

  • Your child hurts himself or others.
  • You feel like hurting your child.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your child's care. Learn about your child's health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your child's caregivers to decide what care you want for your child. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

Further information

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.

Learn more about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder In Children

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