PTSD in Children: From Symptoms to Treatments

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental and behavioral health problem that can develop when you’re threatened by or the victim of harm, violence or injury. It can often occur several weeks after the traumatizing event or even years after. If you don’t seek treatment for your PTSD, you can experience life-long symptoms that affect your quality of life.

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Individuals with PTSD often relive their traumatic event through memories, flashbacks, scary thoughts or nightmares, particularly after they have been exposed to objects or events that remind them of their traumatic past. If you have a child or teen suffering from PTSD, get them the professional help they need to overcome it. A counselor or psychologist can work with them to deal with their bad feelings and hurtful thoughts, so they can get their life back to normal.

Just because a person experiences a traumatic event doesn’t mean they will necessarily develop PTSD. Factors such as history of mental and behavioral health problems, personality, childhood experiences, family and social support, stress levels and how serious the traumatic event was can determine whether or not the person develops it and how severe it is.

If you suspect your child is suffering from PTSD, it is important you get them the help they need to address their feelings. By getting them professional help, they’ll be less likely to turn to alcohol or drugs to self-medicate. With intervention, kids suffering from PTSD can overcome their past and live a happy life.

What Is PTSD in Children?

PTSD occurs in 4 percent of teenagers and children between the ages of 13 to 18. Studies estimate that about 15 to 43 percent of girls and 14 to 43 percent of boys experience a trauma in their lifetime. Around 3 percent to 15 percent of girls and 1 percent to 6 percent of boys who have experienced a trauma end up developing PTSD. Certain trauma survivors experience higher rates of PTSD.

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U.S. child protection services receive about three million reports each year, involving over five million children. Around 30 percent of these children have been the victim of:

  • Neglect (65 percent)
  • Physical Abuse (18 percent)
  • Sexual Abuse (10 percent)
  • Psychological or Mental Abuse (7 percent)

In addition, each year there are up to 10 million children who witness family violence. Child physical abuse makes up around 40 percent to 60 percent of those cases. This number may be significantly low as not all cases are reported.

PTSD Symptoms in Children and Teens

Symptoms of PTSD seem to be at their highest in children and teens who experience the most traumatizing events. Your child or teen’s PTSD symptoms might be less serious if you are supportive of them and not too upset yourself about the trauma.

Symptoms can vary based on a child’s age.

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Children (Ages 5-12)

If your child is young, they might not have problems, flashbacks or memories of the trauma the way adults who have PTSD would. However, your child could be putting the traumatizing events in the wrong order. They might feel as though there were signs leading up to the trauma that they missed. They feel as if they pay better attention now, it will be easier for them to see signs of another traumatic event before it happens again. It’s their way of trying to avoid another traumatic event.

Symptoms of PTSD in children ages 5 through 12 include:

  • Emotional numbing
  • Insomnia or sleep problems
  • Increased hyper-vigilance and arousal symptoms
  • Regression
  • Altered cognitive function
  • Behavioral inhibition
  • Physical contact difficulties

Your child might also show PTSD signs while they are playing. During their play, they might continue to repeat a part of their trauma. Although they are making a game out of it, their distress and worry don’t go away.

For instance, if your child saw a school shooting, they might continue to play games that involve shooting. Also, your child might try and fit a part of their traumatic event into their everyday life. After seeing a school shooting, they may try to bring a gun to school.

Teens (ages 12-18)

PTSD symptoms in teenagers might mimic those of adults. However, teens may be more likely to show aggressive and impulsive behavior that children and adults normally don’t.

Your teen’s PTSD symptoms could last anywhere from a few months to many years. Preventing the trauma in the first place is the best approach. However, once there has been a trauma, it is essential you get your teen into early intervention. Your support, as well as that of your teen’s peers and school, is important. You need to make your teen feel safe, which requires the help of everyone involved in your teen’s life.

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Getting your teen into psychotherapy — whether it be individualized treatment, family therapy or group therapy — can be helpful. During therapy, they may have the opportunity to draw, speak, write or play about their traumatic event. Treatments such as cognitive behavioral therapy can help reduce your teen’s worries and fears. In other cases, medication might be useful for dealing with anxiety, agitation or depression. Often, a treatment plan includes a combination of both.

Childhood Situations Connected to PTSD

PTSD in children and teens typically happens when they are exposed to one or more severe traumas. These traumas can take various forms, including:

  • Having drug-addicted parents
  • Being bullied
  • Being physically, mentally or sexually abused
  • Living in violent homes and witnessing domestic violence
  • Being neglected or ignored

Having Drug-Addicted Parents

When drugs or alcohol are being abused in a family, communication can become unclear and behavior unpredictable. Family life is chaotic at best. Behavior can range from being withdrawn to dependent. Rules and structure tend to be inconsistent or nonexistent, and the child most likely doesn’t realize that the mood or behavior of their parent is determined by the amount of drugs or alcohol in their bloodstream. This can make the child feel insecure and confused. They worry about their parents and love them, but feel hurt and upset that their parents do not love them back enough to quit using.

Children of parents who abuse substances are usually scared. In some cases, they are victims of incest or physical violence. Since drug and alcohol abuse usually go hand in hand with domestic violence, kids also witness violence.

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Being a witness of domestic violence can lead to PTSD with the same level of anxiety, sleep disorders, depression and flashbacks as war victims suffer. Not only do these children fear their own safety, but they are also concerned about their parents’ safety, thinking they could get sick or die from their addiction.

Being Bullied

Bullying is unwanted and hurtful behavior that happens repeatedly. The bully has the power, and the person at the receiving end of the aggression feels powerless.

Even though PTSD traditionally was thought to arise from a single trauma incident, recently experts have begun seeing victims developing the condition after repeated traumatizing incidents, including bullying. Different types of bullying include:

  • Physical violence towards your child
  • Rumors being spread about your child
  • Verbal teasing
  • Ganging up on your child
  • Excluding your child from other peers
  • Using text messaging or social media for cyberbullying that demeans your child

Unfortunately, there have been cases in which bullying leads the victims to commit suicide. Although children usually stop being bullied over time, they can still suffer long-term effects of post-traumatic stress disorder because of it.

Being Physically, Mentally or Sexually Abused

If your child has been abused, they might be having issues with:

  • Sadness
  • Worry
  • Loneliness
  • Anger
  • Feeling isolated from others
  • A low self-worth
  • The inability to trust others

Your child could be showing out-of-place sexual behavior or aggression. They might be abusing alcohol or drugs or self-harming.

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Living in Violent Homes or Witnessing Domestic Violence

There are various forms of domestic violence that include physical abuse, psychological abuse, sexual abuse and abuse of pets and property. If your child is exposed to this type of violence, they could perceive it as being life-threatening, leaving them feeling helpless and vulnerable. If you are physically abusing your child, you can subject them to PTSD.

Being Neglected or Ignored

If you are neglecting your child, you can harm their healthy development. Children need proper care, and without it, they are at risk of not growing and developing properly because of illness, physical injury or malnutrition. However, child neglect can come with another less noticeable danger that might not show itself for years: post traumatic stress disorder. PTSD can affect your child both emotionally and psychologically for the long term.

There are other traumatic events that can lead to PTSD such as car accidents, fires, floods, school shootings, tornados, life-threatening illnesses or seeing another person going through a traumatic event. In some cases, PTSD can develop after repeated exposure to traumatic events such as these. If your child survived an event in which a family member or friend died, they could be suffering from survivor’s guilt, which can lead to PTSD.

Implications of Childhood PSTD Later in Life

Increased medical conditions have been linked to childhood traumatic events. In fact, according to the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study that explored childhood trauma and its long-lasting impact into adulthood, around 64 percent of the 17,000 participants in the study (ages ranging from 19 to 90) experienced at least one exposure. Out of those, two or more childhood trauma incidents were reported in 69 percent of them.

In this study, researchers collected medical histories of the participants as well as information on the participants’ childhood exposure to violence, abuse and impaired caregivers. The results linked childhood trauma exposure with high-risk behaviors (such as unprotected sex and smoking), cancer, heart disease and other chronic illnesses, and early death.

Childhood PTSD and Substance Abuse

Both alcohol and drugs have a negative effect on individuals with PTSD. These substances affect serotonin, which is a brain chemical that relays signals from one part of your brain to the other. It affects function, mood, sleep, sexual desire, learning, memory, social behavior and temperature regulation. When you drink excessively or take drugs, your brain produces more of this chemical, which makes you feel temporarily better.

Alcohol, being a depressant, can make you sleepy. Because of this, alcohol often helps people who have PTSD temporarily fall asleep. If they are anxious or feeling tense, it can help them relax. If your child is drinking excessively, over time they will need more alcohol to have the same effects, which can lead to addiction.

PTSD and drug addiction often happen together. In fact, up to nearly 60 percent of women who have a substance abuse disorder and are in treatment for it are also suffering from PTSD. Many men with substance abuse disorders also have this dual diagnosis of PTSD.

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What Parents Can Do to Help a Child With PTSD

Once a parent has identified they have a child with PTSD, they should seek professional help.

Mental and Behavioral Health Treatment

In some cases, people simply recover from a past trauma after an adjustment period. But, if your child went through a traumatic event and is showing signs of PTSD, it’s time to get professional help.

Symptoms such as negative and intrusive thoughts, avoidance and a depressed mood can be addressed in therapy. The therapist will work with your child and family to help all of you adjust to the traumatic event and get back to life. These mental health professionals can include:

  • Psychiatrists
  • Psychologists
  • Social workers
  • Professional counselors
  • Bereavement specialists
  • Trauma professionals

Professional therapy for PTSD alone or in conjunction with substance abuse treatment can include one or more of the following modalities:

  • Detoxification if drug addiction is involved
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy
  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy
  • Play therapy

Detoxification If Drug Addiction Is Involved

Drug and alcohol abuse are known as avoidance symptoms. Your child might be using them to numb their fear or avoid memories. When these substances are used for managing the symptoms of PTSD, it can increase the severity and frequency of the symptoms.

Since alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, it can worsen anxiety and depression and disturb normal sleeping patterns. A child with PTSD while under the influence of alcohol is more likely to engage in risky behaviors, such as fighting with another person or driving under the influence.

It is not a good idea to wait to get your child help if they have PTSD and addiction issues. Addiction doesn’t get better over time — it gets worse.

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Detoxification and addiction recovery therapy will provide your child with a safe and comfortable place to detox and get better. They will have time to heal from the effects of their addiction and bad memories. Both group and individual counseling may be part of their treatment program.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy can be very effective for treating children with PTSD. One form of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is known as trauma-focused CBT. During CBT, your child will have the opportunity to talk about their memories of the traumatic event to help process their feelings and thoughts.

Trauma-focused CBT also offers techniques to lower stress and worry, while teaching your child how to assert themselves. Your child learns how to change their beliefs or thoughts about the trauma that are not true or correct.

For instance, following a traumatic event, your child might feel as if the world is not safe. CBT is an effective approach that is useful if your child is distressed by memories of the traumatic event. They can learn how to relax while they think of the trauma and discover they don’t need to fear their memories.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy

Directed eye movements and cognitive behavioral therapy are combined in Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR). This therapy is effective in treating both adults and children with PTSD.

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There are no medications or talk therapy involved in this evidence-based therapy. Rather, your child’s own rhythmic, rapid eye movements are used to lessen the emotionally charged power of their memories of past trauma.

During an EMDR treatment session, the therapist takes their fingers and moves them back and forth in front of your child’s face, asking them to follow the movements with their eyes. While doing this, the therapist asks your child to recall the traumatic event along with the body sensations and emotions that go along with it. The therapist will then gradually have your child change their thoughts into better ones.

Play Therapy

If you have a young child with PTSD, play therapy can help them heal. Activities such as drawing and games will be used by the therapist to help your child process their traumatic memories.

Other Ways You Can Help Children With PTSD

Children with PTSD need time to adjust following a stressful event. It’s important that during this time you offer your child love, support and understanding.

If they feel safe to do so, allow them to talk about their traumatic event. Never force them to talk about it if they don’t feel comfortable. Give them praise when they are strong enough to discuss it. Your child might even prefer to write or draw their experiences. No matter how you get them to do it, praise and encouragement are important for helping them get their feelings out in the open.

Let your child know that their feelings are genuine and normal in this type of situation, and assure them they are not going crazy. By being understanding and supportive, you can help them process their hurtful feelings.

It might also help your child to get involved in a support group for survivors of trauma. You can talk with the school counselor or pediatrician to get a list of groups.

Make sure your child knows that the trauma was not their fault, and they should not blame themselves. Encourage them to discuss their feelings of guilt. If you feel there is any chance of self-harm, get them professional help right away. It doesn’t matter how old they are, thoughts of suicide are serious and should be treated immediately.

It can be very challenging trying to help your child deal with their PTSD. It will most likely require a great deal of patience and support. However, keep in mind that time does heal, and by sticking with your child and being supportive, you can help them move forward.

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Get Treatment for PTSD and Addiction at 12 Keys Rehab

Recovery from addiction and PTSD is possible. At 12 Keys, we see clients recover from traumatic pasts and go on to live fulfilling and happy lives. The key is identifying the PTSD and addiction to get the help they need to overcome it.

If you or a loved one is suffering from PTSD and addiction in relation to a traumatic childhood experience, our compassionate team of addiction specialists can help. We’ll review your symptoms, history, challenges and goals to design a personalized treatment plan just for you. Your customized treatment plan will include a range of treatment modalities. From time-tested 12 Steps to evidence-based EMDR, you’ll have the opportunity to heal on every level.

A part of comprehensive healing is uncovering the underlying reasons that led to your addiction. This includes your traumatic event. We’ll help you process the past while giving you the tools you need to move past your feelings. You can leave our intensive treatment with a stronger foundation, ready to begin your journey to lifelong sobriety and away from terrorizing memories.

With personalized, targeted intervention and therapy, individuals suffering from a dual diagnosis of PTSD and addiction can live a sober, quality life again. Your first step is to call 12 Keys Rehab.

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