When we hear about posttraumatic stress (PTSD), we often think of military veterans affected by their combat experiences. But veterans are not the only people who can struggle with this mental health issue. Children six years of age and younger can also develop symptoms of PTSD. The only difference is that symptoms and behaviors in a 6-year-old child with PTSD will likely look very different than symptoms in a veteran.
Posttraumatic stress is just what it sounds like: stress that occurs after a traumatic event. It does not discriminate by age, profession, gender, level of intelligence, religion, etc. Children are at risk for developing PTSD when they experience abuse or other harm or find themselves in a situation where they feel they may be at risk of serious injury, death, or other harm. Children might also develop PTSD if they have seen these events happen to someone close to them or if they find out a caregiver has experienced these events (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).
Signs of PTSD—And Ways to Support Your Child
If your child has been involved in a situation that was traumatic to you or that they describe as scary, this list of symptoms and behaviors can help you know what to look for your child and offer some suggestions for ways you can respond.
- Nightmares about the traumatic event. Your child may wake up in a fearful state in the middle of the night or try to keep from going to sleep in order to avoid having recurring nightmares of the traumatic event (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).
- You might respond by: Gently comforting them and reminding them they are safe now, that the terrible experience is over.
- Replaying the traumatic event using toys or figurines. It’s important to pay close attention to the themes in your child’s play after a traumatic event. Unlike adults, children don’t always talk about how scary or difficult something was for them. Instead, they may play out their thoughts and feelings using toys and role-play (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).
- You might respond by: Contacting a play therapist who can guide you on how to best respond to your child’s play and can help your child make sense of what happened. Don’t shame your child for playing out the traumatic event. They are only trying to process what has occurred. Keep them safe by ensuring they do not put themselves or anyone else in danger as they play out a traumatic event.
- Irritability and temper tantrums. Your child may be more irritable than before. They may more readily throw temper tantrums after a traumatic experience. They may also become verbally or physically aggressive toward you or others. This is a sign they are not coping well with what has occurred (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).
- You might respond by: Letting your child know you understand they are having a hard time dealing with what happened and that you are there for them. Most of the time anger is a surface feeling and has other underlying feelings, such as fear, hurt, or sadness, among others. This may be a good time to talk to them about going to see a therapist or a “special helper who can help kids feel better.”
- Feelings of fear, guilt, sadness, and confusion, among others. As your child tries to make sense of the terrible event, they may be on an emotional roller coaster. They may wonder how they could have prevented such a terrible thing from happening and may feel guilty about not being able to stop it. They may feel afraid it will happen again and sad that it happened. They might also feel confused about what happened and what it will mean for them and others going forward (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).
- You might respond by: Validating the feelings your child has been left with after a traumatic experience. If you notice your child experiencing negative emotions more frequently after trauma, help them identify those feelings and emotions. They may not have the words to identify and express them for themselves, and they are looking to you to help them make sense of what has happened.
- Avoidance. You may notice your child does not want to be around anything that reminds them of the scary situation. They may cry or try to run away from any places that are similar to the place in which the event occurred. These places serve as reminders to your child and place them in a fearful state.
- You might respond by: Reassuring your child you will not intentionally place them in harm’s way and reminding them they are now safe. Don’t force your child to be around the places they want to avoid. This may re-traumatize them. It is important to seek professional help if your child continues to display avoidance in a manner that disrupts daily activities/routines.
These are just a few of the signs you can look for after a traumatic event. If your child continues to display these symptoms and behaviors for more than one month or their symptoms have become more severe, it may be time to contact a therapist who specializes in treating children who have experienced trauma.
A skilled therapist will be able to guide you more directly in ways how to support your child. The therapist will also help your child learn to identify their feelings and make sense of a terrible situation in order for them to be able to feel safe and secure once again. Don’t be afraid to ask for support. The sooner you can get your child help, the easier it is likely to be for you and your child to return to a life free of guilt and fear.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
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