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Parents May Not Recognize PTSD Symptoms in Young Children


When we hear about posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), an image of soldiers returning from war may be the first thing that comes to mind. But anyone who has experienced a traumatic event can develop PTSD, even young children. New research finds that parents often don’t recognize the symptoms of PTSD in their children.


Young children may be exposed to a variety of traumas such as car accidents, abuse, natural disasters and dog bites. The symptoms of PTSD are somewhat different in young children than in adults. Symptoms focus more on behavior because of children’s developmental stage and their ability to express themselves*.

Young children with PTSD may have memories of the event that cause distress or they may have nightmares or flashbacks. Children may try to avoid places or people that are reminders of the event, they may withdraw from people or not be interested in play or other activities they used to enjoy. They may have irritable or angry outbursts (such as extreme temper tantrums) or they may have trouble sleeping. Some symptoms may be expressed as part of play, such as reenacting aspects of the event. Children may also regress developmentally (for example wetting the bed or talking baby-talk) and they may experience physical symptoms, such as headaches and stomachaches.

Many children experience trauma — an estimated 14 to 43 percent, according to the National Center for PTSD. Of those, an estimated 3 to 15 percent of girls and 1 to 6 percent of boys develop PTSD.

In a recent study, researchers in the United Kingdom looked at children aged 2 to 10 years who had visited emergency departments after motor vehicle accidents. They assessed the children and interviewed families three times — two to four weeks after the incident, six months after and three years after. Three years after the traumatic event 17 percent of the children met the criteria for PTSD in young children, but it was often not recognized by parents. Parent responses alone showed only 3 percent of the children meeting the criteria for PTSD.

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Researchers also found when parents experience greater posttraumatic stress it is associated with greater risk of PTSD for the child. They note that the influence could work in either or both directions: the parent’s stress could have influenced children’s responses, the child’s response could have influenced the parent’s reactions or the effects could work in both directions.

According to the National Center for PTSD, three factors increase the risk that children will get PTSD.

  • How severe the trauma is
  • How the parents react to the trauma
  • How close or far away the child is from the trauma

Helping a child heal from PTSD involves working with the child and parents/caregivers, creating a feeling of safety, helping the child to understand the condition, encouraging the child to express his or her feelings (for example, through art and play) and helping develop relaxation and coping skills. While young children may not express feeling and emotions in a way that is easy to understand, they may experience significant effects from trauma and those effects can persist for years.



*DSM-5, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published in 2013 included a new subtype of PTSD for PTSD in preschool children.




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