REALITY CHECK: Studies show children can develop PTSD. If a child has encountered a serious trauma please don’t overlook the possibility of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and seek help of trained and credentialed mental health professionals.
Storms. School shootings. Parent deaths. Bullying. Parental deployments. Terrorist attacks. Abuse. Hurricanes. Witnessing or experiencing violence. Gang activity. The commonality? All are known to trigger Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in children and teens.
I’ve discovered from dealing with parents in past traumatic events that many assume that if their children don’t say anything or appear to be handling things “well” there was no need to worry. That perception has me greatly concerned.
While I don’t want to fuel anxiety, I do want to alert you to a crucial point. Any child experiencing such trauma is at risk for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). That’s why we all need to tune in closer to our children’s emotional health-especially over the next few weeks and months. Here is what you need to know.
Kids and Teens At Risk for PTSD
Post-traumatic stress disorder has been in the news a lot these days because of our military returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, but PTSD isn’t just for adults.
Each year over 3,000,000 children are diagnosed with PTSD.
The stressful event is generally one in which someone’s life has been threatened or a serious injury has happened.
In the last few years more and more children and teens are experiencing such traumatic events such as experiencing or witnessing a school shooting, serious accident, natural disaster (like a fire, flood, tornado, earthquake, hurricane), domestic abuse, gang-related violence in the community, a shooting or violent attack, sexual or physical assault, terrorism, or being diagnosed with a life threatening illness.
New research shows that the death of a parent can also trigger the disorder.
Studies show that New Orleans children who watched disaster-related media coverage of Hurricane Gustav were significantly associated with PTSD symptoms in children with pre-existing symptoms as well.
We are beginning to see a few cases in which parents’ post-traumatic stress is transferring to their children. I’ve just returned at the request of the Pentagon from training mental health counselors about PTSD on our Army and Air Force bases in the Asian-Pacific and Europe.
Though most kids react to stress only briefly and then recover, some do not. Their fear may be such that they are unable to cope with their daily life. That traumatic event is replayed over and over in their minds.
Certain smells, sounds, or visual cues instantly conjure up the earlier trauma and paralyze the child. So let’s understand what PTSD is and how it can impact our children.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is when those fears from a traumatic experience last sometimes for months or years or even come back after the trauma. The key word in this disorder is “post.” That means a child with PTSD usually displays symptoms within three months following the tragedy but those symptoms may not start until weeks, months or even years later.
That’s why if you know your child or a child you are working with has experienced trauma you need to tune in a little closer and watch for signs over these next weeks. Here is what you should know so you can help your child.
Signs of Post Traumatic Stress in Children and Teens
Here are a few signs of PTSD that the American Academy of Pediatrics says you should watch for in a child:
Frequent memories of the event or playing and replaying the event
Upsetting and frightening dreams or having trouble falling asleep and staying asleep
Losing interest in activities or withdrawing from friends
Avoiding situations or places that remind them of the trauma
Problems concentrating and focusing
Regressive behaviors (starting to suck his thumb, bed-wetting, be clinging like he did at a much younger age)
Irritability, angry outbursts
Worrying about death and talking about dying
A heightened sense of their environment like a hyper-vigilance
Less responsive emotionally or depressed or detached from their feelings
Every child responds differently to stress. That’s why it’s important that you use your instincts about your child. Are the symptoms lasting? Does your instinct tell you that something more could be going on?
Start tracking those symptoms. Write them down on a calendar or in a journal. You may notice a pattern that you overlooked. Those notes will be helpful to a medical professional.
If You Suspect Your Child Has PTSD
If your child has experienced a tragedy or trauma and you see an uncharacteristic change that concerns you, that lasts longer than two weeks and is impacting your child’s life, get help! Telling your child to not think about the event or “get over it” does not work. The key to helping the child is intervention and ASAP. Only a trained and credentialed mental health professional who understands PTSD should be contacted.
~ Check with the American Psychological Association (APA) or American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) online for references of mental health professionals in your area.
~ Ask your pediatrician for a referral.
~ In some states call 2-1- 1 for a list of referrals.
There are effective treatments but the sooner you get the right treatment the sooner the recovery.
Though this topic may not be one facing your child now, please keep them in mind. Sometime in your lifetime you or a member of your family may have to face a tragedy or trauma and if they do, you’ll be ready to help your child cope. Just make sure to take care of yourself so you can take care of your child.
All the best to you and your family.
Dr. Michele Borba
For more helpful advice and specific strategies on how to help a child deal with PTSD or anxiety refer to The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries by Michele Borba
Follow me on twitter @MicheleBorba.