Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Children: What Are the Signs and Symptoms of PTSD in Youth and Adolescents?

Post-traumatic in children is similar to post-traumatic stress disorder in adults, with some important differences. The following signs and symptoms of PTSD in youth and adolescents highlight those differences.

Causes of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in Children

“Children who are undergoing a major change in their routine or environment, such as starting a new school, can experience a tremendous amount of stress and exhibit increased amounts of irritability, which can lead to aggression in some cases,” writes Linda Chokroverty, MD, in 100 Questions and Answers About Your Child’s Depression or Bipolar Disorder. She adds that aggression can be part of post-traumatic stress disorder in children.

A child doesn’t necessarily need to be abused or harmed outright to experience PTSD or exhibit anxious behavior. Stressful events can include seeing marital conflict between parents or witnessing disturbing activities. Anything that involves the threat of serious harm, fear, helplessness, disorganization, or horror can lead to post-traumatic stress. Also, what’s “disturbing” to one child may not be disturbing to another – each child responds differently to his or her environment.

Signs and Symptoms of PTSD in Children

The following diagnostic criteria or signs and symptoms of PTSD in youth are from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV).

  • Recurring and distressing memories of the event. In young children, repetitive play may reveal themes of the stressful event.
  • Repeated dreams of the event. Children may experience frightening dreams without remembering or recognizing the content of the dream. Difficult falling and staying asleep is another sign of PTSD
  • Reliving the stressful event. Flashbacks, hallucinations, and feeling as if the past event was happening in the present. Young children may reenact the event.
  • Intense anxiety, panic, or distress at cues. Youth or adolescents who are exposed to internal or external reminders of the event may experience panic or anxiety attacks.
  • Persistent avoidance of things associated with the event. Children with post-traumatic stress disorder may avoid thoughts, conversations, activities, places, or people associated with the stressful event.
  • Irritability, anger, aggression, other mood disturbances. Anxious behaviors in children with PTSD can also include difficult concentrating, feelings of detachment or dissociation, memory loss, or an exaggerated startle response.

Children with PTSD may exhibit some or all of these anxious behaviors. To be formally diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, children must exhibit these signs and symptoms for one month or longer. It’s crucial for children who may be struggling with PTSD, panic attacks, or anxious behavior to see a psychologist or doctor as soon as possible.

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