Parents May Not Notice Children’s PTSD Symptoms

Little girl being carried by momParents may fail to notice symptoms of posttraumatic stress (PTSD) in their children for years, according to a study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry.

While many media reports disproportionately highlight PTSD arising from military combat, symptoms can occur in anyone who experiences trauma. Abuse, exposure to natural disasters, life-threatening illnesses, car accidents, violent crimes, and similar traumas can trigger PTSD. According to the National Comorbidity Survey Replication Adolescent Supplement, 5% of teens meet diagnostic criteria for PTSD. The National Center for PTSD reports that no nationally representative studies have explored PTSD rates in younger children.

Does PTSD Go Unnoticed in Children?

The study included more than 100 children ages 2-10 who were involved in road accidents such as car crashes or being hit by a car. Investigators used PTSD diagnostic criteria to assess participants two to four weeks following the accident, then again at six months and three years. They interviewed all participants who were age 7 or older, as well as all primary caregivers.

They found stress shortly after a trauma does not necessarily correlate with PTSD in later years. Trauma severity correlated with symptoms of PTSD for as many as six months following the trauma, but not three years later. Three years following a trauma, parents of children with PTSD often failed to recognize their children’s symptoms. Even some parents with PTSD did not notice the same condition in their children.

Children were more vulnerable to PTSD if their parents also experienced it. Researchers say this could be due to feedback between the parent and child. A child with PTSD symptoms may be more stressful to a parent, and a parent’s response to trauma may partially shape a child’s reaction. The study’s authors highlight the importance of providing support for both children and their parents, so one person’s symptoms do not amplify the other’s.

Detecting PTSD Symptoms in Children

The study highlights the need for both parents and clinicians to weigh the effects of trauma on children. The symptoms of PTSD are often different in children, and very young children may not be able to verbalize their symptoms.

Older children typically experience symptoms similar to those of adults, such as intrusive flashbacks, avoidance of people and places associated with the trauma, difficulty remembering parts of the traumatic event, and high levels of anxiety. Symptoms of PTSD in younger children may include:

  • A skewed sense of time regarding the trauma. For example, a child might believe the traumatic event occurred much earlier or later than it did or remember the events of the trauma happening in a different order.
  • Omen formation: the belief that certain warning signs predicted the trauma. This can cause children to believe if they are sufficiently careful or alert, they can prevent a subsequent trauma.
  • Reenacting the trauma in art, play, or discussions. This tendency to reenact the trauma can be compulsive and does not typically help children with their anxiety. Some children may also recreate behavioral portions of the trauma.


  1. Parents don’t notice young children’s PTSD — but may need support themselves. (2016, November 8). Retrieved from
  2. PTSD in children and adolescents. (2016, February 23). Retrieved from

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  • Leave a Comment
  • Vickie

    November 24th, 2016 at 5:52 PM

    What on earth would keep a parent from seeing this?

  • Vince

    November 25th, 2016 at 7:18 AM

    When you are aware of the fact that a child has been a victim of or exposed to a traumatic event in his life then parents have to be vigilant about keeping an eye on them and knowing how he or she is processing and dealing with that trauma. For kids this is not going to always be an easy thing because depending on the age of the child he might not even have the words or the understanding yet to be able to tell you exactly what or how he is feeling.
    This is why as parents you have to be so in tune with who your child is so that you can help be a part of that healing process.

  • Matthew

    November 25th, 2016 at 9:09 AM

    I don’t know, it is like some parents are so caught up in their own lives that they fail to see the hurt going on in the lives of their children.

  • REX

    November 26th, 2016 at 8:45 AM

    I know that most of us believe that if there is something that’s going on with our child then we will be able to see that but I am telling you that there are some kids who are just too awfully good at hiding their feelings and their emotions. They might have something very deep that they are contending with but you would never know it because they do not want to bother you with that same worry that they are feeling.

  • Ivy

    November 26th, 2016 at 10:51 AM

    We do understand that for many parents this is not a moment when they are burying their heads in the sand, they just might not understand what they should be looking for.

  • rita

    November 27th, 2016 at 7:53 AM

    And we should all remember that parents may be struggling with their own guilt about not being able to protect that child.

  • Caleb

    November 27th, 2016 at 1:31 PM

    I think that the best advice would be to always seek out help from a trained professional when something like this has occurred in the life of your child. It might not be anything that they can’t handle; but on the other hand it could be causing them a great deal more pain than what you are able to contend with.

    I think that for your sake and especially for theirs it would be wise to always seek the counsel of someone who is trained in this and who can help them to become stable if they are indeed experiencing PTSD symptoms.

  • Jermome

    November 28th, 2016 at 7:34 AM

    Depending on the age of the child it can be even more difficult to get information from them.
    Of course if they are older they can usually talk to you about certain things but if they are just young children they are naturally going to lack the ability to do that.

  • Hannah

    November 28th, 2016 at 2:54 PM

    If you say that acting out the trauma could in and of itself be a traumatic thing then why are there adults who go through some sort of simulations to actually try to get them to overcome their fears?
    I just can’t think of what the name of that is or how it would be different for children versus adults.

  • Tyler

    November 29th, 2016 at 2:06 PM

    So if not the parents then who?

  • Jessica

    June 6th, 2018 at 9:18 PM

    In our experience, only a small minority of child psychologists, play therapists, psychiatrists, school psychologists, and social workers effectively surveil for PTSD, sadly. The signs and symptoms can be extreme and “textbook” and they’re still missed. I can’t imagine how parents who have no formal psychology background should be expected to recognize signs and symptoms of PTSD as such.

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