One of the most difficult truths of parenting is that you can’t always protect your child. An increasing number of children are exposed to acts of violence. Even witnessing traumatic events can leave kids feeling fearful and unsafe. If you think your child is having difficulties coping, it’s important you know the signs and symptoms of Child Traumatic Stress. Being informed will make all the difference for your child’s recovery and your peace of mind.
- Approximately 1 in 4 children will experience some type of traumatic event before the age of sixteen. A child may suffer symptoms of depression, anxiety, fear and feelings of guilt, whether they were a trauma victim or a witness to the trauma.
If these emotions go unresolved and persist for more than a month, your child could be suffering from Child Traumatic Stress, a term used to describe symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in children and adolescents. Recognizing the signs of PTSD in young children is difficult since they may not be able to verbalize their feelings. For this reason, parents should watch for changes in a child’s behavior in the aftermath of a crisis.
PTSD typically occurs in children who have witnessed or experienced an event involving death, the threat of death, serious physical injury, or a threat to their physical safety.
Some common childhood traumas include:
- Car accidents
- Serious injury
- Serious medical diagnosis and procedures
- Natural disasters
- Acts of terrorism
- School violence
Signs & Indicators of PTSD in Children
There are several key indicators to be watchful of after your child has experienced some type of trauma. You may want to seek the help of a professional if your child exhibits any of the following behaviors:
- Continues to experience the event in the form of thoughts, flashbacks, dreams, or phobias
- Avoids anything associated with the event like where it happened, people involved, or thoughts
- Has difficulty sleeping, concentrating, or experiences mood swings
- Expresses fear verbally or in the form of crying, screaming, freezing-up, tantrums, scared to separate from family members, or starts to act younger than their age
- May see changes in their impulse control or ability to concentrate
- School-age kids may experience problems in school or refuse to attend school
- Child may get very attached to parents or isolate themselves from family and peers
- Teens may engage in disruptive behavior, eating difficulties, sexual acting out, substance abuse, self-injurious behaviors or suicidal thoughts
What Empowered Parents Can Do
How a child recovers from trauma largely depends on several factors. Age, developmental level, and severity of the trauma will influence how a child reacts. But the greatest influence on a child’s reaction is the parent’s reactions. Your emotional resilience, or lack thereof, is a guiding agent for your kids.
Research shows that parents who respond to trauma with reassuring supportive action can greatly reduce the likelihood of their child suffering PTSD symptoms. Your child will be looking to you to gauge how they should be reacting.
Role modeling healthy coping skills can have a powerful impact on your child’s healing. Be very cautious about letting your own fears stop you from talking with your child. It’s appropriate to let your child know that you feel fear too. Sharing stories of how you have overcome your fears in the past can be very helpful as well.
Family counseling is an effective way to help reduce a child’s fear associated with the trauma. If you believe that your child has signs of PTSD, you should seek the professional help of a clinician who specializes in trauma-focused therapy. It’s critical that parents and family members be involved in treatment to encourage an environment of support, understanding, and reassurance for the child.
American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-IV-TR (4th Ed.). Washington, DC.
Lubit, R. H. (2010). Post-traumatic stress disorder in children. emedicine from WebMD. Retrieved September 29, 2011, from http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/918844-overview
McNally, R. J. (2009). Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. In Sadock, B. J., Sadock, V. A., & Ruiz, P. (Eds.), Comprehensive textbook of psychiatry, (9th ed.), (pp. 2650-2660). Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.