What Is the Difference between PTSD in Children and PTSD in Adults?

A. Reed

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) refers to a psychological condition in which the occurrence of a highly-stressful event continues to be experienced long after it has passed. The various symptoms known to characterize PTSD have been generally separated into several categories: avoidance, re-experience, and hyperarousal. Although PTSD in adults manifests symptoms in all three of these groups, childhood PTSD typically does not, particularly in the area of avoidance. The disorder presents differently in children and affects them in other ways. Brain development in children, for example, may be significantly hindered by witnessing instances of violence.

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

In order for this disorder to be diagnosed, the individual must have been exposed to an extremely traumatizing occurrence during which feelings of pronounced powerlessness and fright are produced. The individual then continues to repeatedly relive the particular event and tries to inhibit exposure to anything that would remind him or her of it. This is generally accomplished by dissociation, a way of distancing oneself from a situation or experience through mental withdrawal. To understand the difference between PTSD in children and PTSD in adults, it is necessary to know that the diagnostic criteria stated in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR) as of the year 2000 does not entirely apply to children. Professionals of mental health typically take this into account when making a diagnosis of childhood PTSD by applying certain alternative criteria.

Adults with PTSD frequently experience exaggerated psychological responses to anxiety inducing situations, while children may not.
Adults with PTSD frequently experience exaggerated psychological responses to anxiety inducing situations, while children may not.

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Some childhood PTSD symptoms may not be identifiable or even manifest at all, at least not in the way of PTSD in adults. Especially applicable to young children, language skills are as developed when compared with adolescents and adults. For this reason, PTSD symptoms such as dissociation can go on unnoticed in small children. Instead, these manifestations will occur in the form of withdrawal from interacting socially and play, which may frequently fluctuate with instances of marked anxiety. The way anxiety presents in childhood PTSD differs from PTSD in adults, in that children will tend to experience nightmares or night terrors while adults might have insomnia or sudden panic attacks resulting in exaggerated physiological reactions including a racing pulse and hyperventilation.​

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a psychiatric condition that results from physical or emotional trauma.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is a psychiatric condition that results from physical or emotional trauma.

Indicated by extensive research, traumatic circumstances and resulting effects of PTSD have a significant impact on brain development in babies and children, particularly that which is associated with child abuse including emotional neglect as well as witnessing encounters of repetitive household violence. Developmental delays may result due to anxiety, which tends to make tasks requiring prolonged attention and concentration especially problematic. Social growth and maturation may also be affected.

Children suffering from PTSD might experience nightmares or night terrors.
Children suffering from PTSD might experience nightmares or night terrors.

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