What are the Common Signs of PTSD in Children?

Amanda R. Bell

Children suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) present with different symptoms than most adults with the same condition. The most common signs of PTSD in children are reenacting the trauma, avoiding reminders of the trauma, and forgetting details or orders of events, or the entire trauma itself. Other signs of PTSD in children include extreme agitation, recurring nightmares, headaches, stomach aches, and a fixation with death or dying. In some cases, children with this disorder may also revert back to baby-like behaviors.

Some psychologists specialize in treating children with PTSD.
Some psychologists specialize in treating children with PTSD.

Young children who have experienced a trauma, especially those between the ages of 5 and 12, often play out the experience with toys or other objects. This is particularly common in children who have been sexually abused, so much so that observing a suspected abuse victim play can aid psychologists and social workers in a diagnosis. PTSD in children can also cause them to avoid the place where the event occurred or even unrelated things that may remind them of the event. In some cases, a child may have an adverse emotional or physical reaction to something as simple as a color or smell.

Children who have endured a trauma may have PTSD.
Children who have endured a trauma may have PTSD.

Due to the underdevelopment of a child's brain, it is extremely common for a child suffering from PTSD to mix up the order of events relating to a trauma or forget certain parts of it. This can make it difficult for adult caretakers to determine the exact root of PTSD in children if there is no witness to the event. For example, it is typical for children who witnessed a murder to describe it as a monster or other imaginary being harming them.

Children suffering from PTSD may experience difficulty concentrating.
Children suffering from PTSD may experience difficulty concentrating.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, children may remember the event and all of the things leading up to it in such detail that they become fixated with the precursors to the trauma, thereby convincing themselves that if those same things take place again, that another bad thing will happen. A simple example of this would be hearing a train horn right before a loved one's death, and then subsequently believing that anytime they hear the same sound someone else will die. In extreme cases, a child will block out the event entirely. This is a type of defense mechanism the brain utilizes for anything that it cannot process or that causes too much emotional pain to process. For legal purposes, especially abuse cases, the statute of limitation often begins from the time the event is remembered rather than when it occurs.

Children suffering from PTSD might experience recurring nightmares.
Children suffering from PTSD might experience recurring nightmares.

PTSD in children can also present with physical symptoms, most of which adults usually experience due to stress. Headaches and stomach aches are extremely common and usually occur when a child is reminded of the trauma. Children may also have difficulty concentrating and controlling their temper, often resulting in difficulties in school from a previously model student.

Headaches, stomachaches and extreme agitation are all common signs of PTSD in children.
Headaches, stomachaches and extreme agitation are all common signs of PTSD in children.

When a trauma is related to a death of a loved one, especially a primary caregiver, children may start acting much younger than they actually are. Thumb sucking, whining, and speaking in baby talk, for a child who is well past these behaviors, are often symptoms of PTSD in children. A child may also be especially clingy towards a new primary caregiver and may experience separation anxiety when that person leaves, even for only a few minutes. PTSD in children can hinder their physical, emotional, and mental growth. The sooner these symptoms are noticed and treatment with a child psychologist specializing in PTSD in children begins, the more likely a child has of moving past the trauma and living a full, enjoyable life.

Thumb sucking at an age that a child shouldn't be thumb sucking could be a sign of PTSD.
Thumb sucking at an age that a child shouldn't be thumb sucking could be a sign of PTSD.
Children with PTSD can suffer stomach aches when they're reminded of the trauma.
Children with PTSD can suffer stomach aches when they're reminded of the trauma.

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