Education is an essential step in the process of helping a child or adolescent heal from posttraumatic stress disorder. The more you understand about the signs, symptoms, and effects of PTSD, the better prepared you will be to get help for your son or daughter. At Altacare, we’re committed to supporting students and families throughout Montana as they work to heal from PTSD.
Understanding PTSD in Children & Adolescents
Learn about posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among children and adolescents
Posttraumatic stress disorder, which is commonly referred to as PTSD, is a type of mental illness that occurs in the aftermath of one or more traumatic events. PTSD can affect individuals of all ages, including children and adolescents.
Examples of the types of trauma that can precede PTSD in children or adolescents include physical or emotional abuse, sexual assault, neglect, natural disasters, terrorist attacks, death of a parent or other significant individual, automobile accidents, and serious illnesses.
When a young person directly or indirectly experiences trauma, they may respond with a range of emotions. Temporary feelings of sadness, fear, anxiety, guilt, or even shame are common responses among those who have survived or witnessed a traumatic event. These responses are normal reactions to horrific situations. If they do not last for an extended length of time or cause undue emotional anguish, such emotions do not indicate a problem.
However, in many cases, children or adolescents who have lived through trauma develop persistent distressing symptoms. They may develop overwhelming fear or anxiety. They may have trouble sleeping, and have nightmares when they are able to sleep. They may begin to engage in violent or otherwise dangerous behaviors. These and other signs may indicate that a young person has developed PTSD.
Posttraumatic stress disorder can have a profound negative impact on a young person’s life. But it is a treatable condition. When a child or adolescent receives effective professional treatment for PTSD, they can learn to manage their symptoms, regain control of their behaviors, and once again live a happier and healthier life.
Statistics about trauma and PTSD among children and adolescents
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), the National Center for PTSD, and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) have reported the following statistics related to trauma and posttraumatic stress disorder among children and teens in the United States:
- More than two-thirds of young people will experience at least one traumatic event before age 16.
- About 9.2 of every 1,000 children experience abuse or neglect.
- As many as 10 million children witness acts of family violence every year.
- The overall rate of PTSD among U.S. adolescents is about 5%.
- About 8% of adolescent girls and 2.3% of adolescent boys will develop PTSD.
Causes & Risk Factors
Causes and risk factors for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among children and adolescents
The likelihood that a child or adolescent will develop posttraumatic stress disorder can be influenced by a variety of factors.
The one common factor in all cases of PTSD is the occurrence of one or more traumatic events. A child or adolescent may develop PTSD after being directly involved in the event, witnessing a traumatic occurrence, or learning the details of a loved one’s traumatic experience.
Among those who have experienced trauma, the following factors can put them at greater risk for PTSD:
- Experiencing multiple or particularly severe types of trauma
- Being female (PTSD is more common among girls who experience trauma than among boys)
- Family history of mental illness
- Previous struggles with other forms of mental illness
- Insufficient family or social support
- Separation from parent due to divorce, death, or other cause
- Family dysfunction
Signs & Symptoms
Symptoms of PTSD in children and adolescents
PTSD can impact children and adolescents in a variety of ways. The following are common signs and symptoms that may indicate that a young person is struggling with PTSD:
- Abusing alcohol or other substances
- Behaving in a dangerous, reckless, or otherwise destructive manner
- Acting aggressively, either verbally or physically
- Avoiding people, places, or events that remind the young person of the trauma
- Reenacting the traumatic event via play (in children)
- Loss of language skills (in young children)
- Loss of interest in significant activities
- Racing heart rate
- Shortness of breath
- Difficulty getting to sleep and remaining asleep
- Jitteriness or jumpiness
- Difficulty focusing or concentrating
- Memory problems
- Recurring intrusive recollections of the traumatic event
- Depersonalization, or feeling detached from one’s body
- Derealization, or feeling removed or distant from one’s environment
- Auditory hallucinations
- Drastic mood swings
- Negative self-image
- Shame or guilt
- Persistent sense of fear or danger
- Unprovoked anger
- Inability to experience joy, pleasure, or other positive emotions
- Withdrawal from family and friends
Effects of untreated posttraumatic stress disorder in children and adolescents
A child or adolescent who develops PTSD needs effective professional care. Without proper care, the young person may be at continued risk for a variety of negative outcomes, including the following:
- Strained relationships with parents, siblings, peers, and others
- Substandard performance in school
- Behavioral problems in school
- Substance abuse and addiction
- Physical harm due to reckless or otherwise dangerous behaviors
- Legal problems resulting from reckless behaviors or impaired decision-making
- Poor self-esteem
- Diminished self-confidence
- Withdrawal or isolation
- Suicidal thoughts
It is important to understand that problematic outcomes like the ones listed above can be avoided. When a child or adolescent receives appropriate professional treatment for PTSD, they limit their risk for continued harm and can begin to heal from past damage. With proper care, a young person who has been struggling with PTSD can live a much healthier and more hopeful life.
Common co-occurring disorders among children and adolescents who develop PTSD
Young people who develop PTSD may also have an increased risk for several co-occurring disorders, including the following:
- Substance use disorders (which is the clinical term for addiction)
- Bipolar disorder
- Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD)
Why Seek Treatment for PTSD
Altacare can help children and adolescents who have been struggling with PTSD
The impact of untreated PTSD among children and adolescents can be devastating, with effects that may be felt for years and even decades.
But with proper professional care, young people who have been struggling with PTSD can attain improved quality of life and pursue much healthier and happier futures. Proper PTSD treatment can help children and adolescents avoid the behavioral problems and academic setbacks that can derail their development. Most importantly, effective treatment for PTSD can empower young people to address the impact of trauma in a healthy and productive manner.
Children and adolescents in Montana whose lives have been impacted by trauma may be eligible to receive school-based services through Altacare of Montana.
Our outpatient programming options include personalized treatment plans for young people who are struggling with PTSD or other effects of trauma. We offer a variety of therapies and related support services that promote mental and behavioral health without requiring children or adolescents to be removed from their home or school.