Slipping Under the Radar: PTSD in Children

October 17, 2011

We normally don’t think of children as victims of PTSD.

But with nearly six million allegations filed each year for child abuse alone—and approximately two-thirds of abuse cases go unreported—it’s a wonder we haven’t seriously explored PTSD in children until recently.

This is in part because PTSD manifests itself differently in children than it does in adults. PTSD—or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder—is typified as a mental illness resulting from the aftershock of experiencing or witnessing trauma.

According to the National Center for PTSD, children ages 5-12 tend not to have the kinds of flashbacks associated with traditional, adult PTSD. Instead, signs of PTSD may reveal themselves during playtime. A child may be more apt to play with fake guns after witnessing a shooting, or crash their toy cars after seeing a terrible accident. Of course, playing with toys will not always indicate PTSD. But similar instances occur with young victims of sexual abuse as a way of repeating or reminding themselves of the trauma.

Older children between 12 and 18 begin to have symptoms similar to adults, such as emotional flashbacks and depression. They may engage in self-destructive behavior like substance abuse. However, adolescent children with PTSD often tend to be more impulsive and aggressive than adults.

Because the number of abuses reported is a misleading interpretation of how prevalent abuse actually is, the number of children who witness or fall victim to trauma in the U.S. range anywhere from 29 to 86 percent. Of that figure, children who subsequently develop PTSD is anywhere from four to 21 percent.

PTSD can last from three months to many years. Creating a supportive environment where a child is encouraged to talk about the trauma is the best action a family can take when providing for a child suffering from PTSD.

More information on the causes of PTSD in children as well as the types of therapy available can be found at The National Center for PTSD and the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.