PTSD In Children And Adolescents

By Annette Dominguez   |   05/21/2007   |   comments
PTSD In Children And AdolescentsThe diagnosis of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was formally recognized as a psychiatric diagnosis in 1980. At that time, little was known about what PTSD looked like in children and adolescents. Today, we know children and adolescents are susceptible to developing PTSD, and we know that PTSD has different age-specific features.

What events cause PTSD in children?

A diagnosis of PTSD means that an individual experienced an event that involved a threat to one's own or another's life and that this person responded with intense fear, helplessness, or horror. There are a number of traumatic events that have been shown to cause PTSD in children and adolescents. Children and adolescents may be diagnosed with PTSD if they have survived natural and man made disasters such as floods; violent crimes such as kidnapping, rape or murder of a parent, sniper fire, and school shootings; motor vehicle accidents such as automobile and plane crashes; severe burns; exposure to community violence; war; peer suicide; and sexual and physical abuse.   What are the risk factors for PTSD? There are three factors that have been shown to increase the likelihood that children will develop PTSD. These factors include the severity of the traumatic event, the parental reaction to the traumatic event, and the physical proximity to the traumatic event. Family support and parental coping have also been shown to affect PTSD symptoms in children. Studies show that children and adolescents with greater family support and less parental distress have lower levels of PTSD symptoms.  

What does PTSD look like in children?

Researchers and clinicians are beginning to recognize that PTSD may not present itself in children the same way it does in adults. Criteria for PTSD now include age-specific features for some symptoms.   Very Young Children-Very young children may present with few PTSD symptoms. This may be because eight of the PTSD symptoms require a verbal description of one's feelings and experiences. Instead, young children may report more generalized fears such as stranger or separation anxiety, avoidance of situations that may or may not be related to the trauma, sleep disturbances, and a preoccupation with words or symbols that may or may not be related to the trauma.  

Elementary school-aged children- Clinical reports suggest that elementary school-aged children may not experience visual flashbacks or amnesia for aspects of the trauma. However, they do experience "time skew" and "omen formation," which are not typically seen in adults. Time skew refers to a child mis-sequencing trauma related events when recalling the memory. Omen formation is a belief that there were warning signs that predicted the trauma. As a result, children often believe that if they are alert enough, they will recognize warning signs and avoid future traumas.   Adolescents and Teens -PTSD in adolescents may begin to more closely resemble PTSD in adults. However, there are a few features that have been shown to differ. Adolescents are more likely to engage in traumatic reenactment, in which they incorporate aspects of the trauma into their daily lives. In addition, adolescents are more likely than younger children or adults to exhibit impulsive and aggressive behaviors.    

Besides PTSD, what are the other effects of trauma on children?

Besides PTSD, children and adolescents who have experienced traumatic events often exhibit other types of problems. Perhaps the best information available on the effects of traumas on children comes from a review of the literature on the effects of child sexual abuse. In this review, it was shown that sexually abused children often have problems with fear, anxiety, depression, anger and hostility, aggression, sexually inappropriate behavior, self-destructive behavior, feelings of isolation and stigma, poor self-esteem, difficulty in trusting others, and substance abuse. These problems are often seen in children and adolescents who have experienced other types of traumas as well. Children who have experienced traumas also often have relationship problems with peers and family members, problems with acting out, and problems with school performance.   Along with associated symptoms, there are a number of psychiatric disorders that are commonly found in children and adolescents who have been traumatized. One commonly co-occurring disorder is major depression. Other disorders include substance abuse; other anxiety disorders such as separation anxiety, panic disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder; and externalizing disorders such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, and conduct disorder.  

How is PTSD treated in children and adolescents?

Although some children show a natural remission in PTSD symptoms over a period of a few months, a significant number of children continue to exhibit symptoms for years if untreated.  

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) -A review of the adult treatment studies of PTSD shows that this is the most effective approach for treating children. Through this procedure, they learn that they do not have to be afraid of their memories. CBT also involves challenging children's false beliefs such as, "the world is totally unsafe." The majority of studies have found that it is safe and effective to use CBT for children with PTSD. CBT is often accompanied by psycho-education and parental involvement.

Psycho-education is education about PTSD symptoms and their effects. It is as important for parents and caregivers to understand the effects of PTSD as it is for children. Research shows that the better parents cope with the trauma, and the more they support their children, the better their children will function. Therefore, it is important for parents to seek treatment for themselves in order to develop the necessary coping skills that will help their children.  

Play therapy -Play therapy can be used to treat young children with PTSD who are not able to deal with the trauma more directly. The therapist uses games, drawings, and other techniques to help the children process their traumatic memories. Medications- Drugs have also been prescribed for some children with PTSD. However, due to the lack of research in this area, it is too early to evaluate the effectiveness of medication therapy. Finally, specialized interventions may be necessary for children exhibiting particularly problematic behaviors or PTSD symptoms. For example, a specialized intervention might be required for inappropriate sexual behavior or extreme behavioral problems.  

What can I do to help my child?

Reading this fact sheet is a first step toward helping your child. Gather information on PTSD and pay attention to how your child is functioning. Watch for warning signs such as sleep problems, irritability, avoidance, changes in school performance, and problems with peers. Consider having your child evaluated by a mental-health professional who has experience treating PTSD in children and adolescents. Consider whether you might also benefit from talking to someone individually. The most important thing you can do now is to support your child.    


Davidson, R.T. (2001). Recognition and treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder, Journal of the American Medical Association 286(5): 584–588. Retrieved May 3, 2007 from JSTOR database.    

Hamblen, J. (1998). Practice Parameters for the Assessment and Treatment of Children and      Adolescents with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 37:10 supplement. Retrieved April 30, 2007 from JSTOR database.  

National Child Traumatic Stress Network. ( n.d.). What Is Child Traumatic Stress?. Retrieved May 2, 2007 from

National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Helping Children and Adolescents Cope with Violence and Disasters. Retrieved May 10, 2007 from

Questions about this article or any of the services provided by Butterfly Effects? Call us at (888) 880-9270, contact us - or - leave a comment for our Facebook community below.

Comments & community discussions

More resources

What Butterfly Effects does

How to get started

Latest articles

New team members

Trending & popular topics

Butterfly Effects on Facebook