Child & Adolescent PTSD

adolescent

Every child and adolescent is likely to experience stressful events which may affect them physically or emotionally. A child’s reaction to stress is often brief, and they can recover quickly and without long term problems. However, the experience of trauma can result in ongoing difficulties such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Trauma is a situation where an individual fears for their life or experiences extreme physical or psychological danger. This could be a natural disaster, a catastrophic accident, physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, or witnessing violence. It is estimated that up to 40% of children and teenagers experience at least one traumatic experience.[1]

A child’s propensity to developing PTSD is related to how they experience the gravity of the trauma, their proximity to the trauma, whether the trauma is repeated, others’ reactions to the event, and their relationship to those involved.

The child or teenager may struggle with disturbing memories, flashbacks, nightmares, and physical distress symptoms following the event, making day-to-day life a struggle. This is especially true for young people who may not have the tools or skills to explain how they feel and what they are experiencing.

PTSD can happen to anyone regardless of gender, ethnicity, or age. The symptoms of PTSD often present differently in children and teenagers, so a diagnosis may, unfortunately, be missed.

Symptoms of PTSD in Children & Adolescents

The symptoms of PTSD frequently look different among children and adolescents compared to adults. Young children commonly display symptoms of PTSD through their play and interactions with others.[2] The phenomenon of Post-traumatic Play has been mainly studied among children who have experienced terror events; however, it is seen across all types of traumatic events. Play analysis has shown that children are likely to re-enact traumatic situations, follow morbid themes, display a reduced awareness of themselves as a player, and display a lower developmental level.

In contrast, teenagers with PTSD have been found to exhibit impulsive, aggressive, and even violent tendencies with their peers, family, and authority figures.[3]

PTSD symptoms shared by both children and adolescents may include:

  • Memories, nightmares, and flashbacks. 
  • Acting or feeling like the trauma is repeating.
  • Physical trauma symptoms such as a racing heart, trembling and tension, headaches, digestive discomfort, clammy or sweaty skin, fatigue and pain.
  • Losing interest in friends or hobbies.
  • Insomnia.
  • Displaying sudden or extreme emotions.
  • Expressing acute anger, frustration, or irritability.
  • Difficulty focusing or concentrating.
  • Concerns about dying at a young age.
  • Showing a lower developmental level than their peers.
  • Feeling nervous, restless, or anxious.
  • Experiencing emotional numbness or dissociation.
  • Relationship problems with peers, family members, and teachers.
  • Decreased school performance.

Both children and adults can have difficulty recollecting the trauma event narrative; however, children and teenagers often remember things in the wrong order. An adverse side-effect of this erroneous narrative is that children and adolescents frequently believe there was an advance warning sign they failed to be aware of. This creates more significant anxiety, lack of trust, and trepidation in their daily lives as they try to prevent any similar trauma from reoccurring.

PTSD & Co-Occurring Disorders

Along with the aforementioned associated symptoms, several psychiatric disorders can be found among young people with PTSD. The most common co-occurring conditions include major depression, panic disorder, separation anxiety, generalised anxiety disorder, ADHD, conduct disorder, and substance use disorder.[5]

Children who have experienced trauma often have additional problems with loneliness, low self-worth, fear, sadness, low self-esteem, a lack of trust in others, feeling inferior, patronised, and misunderstood. As such, there is a propensity among this demographic to display aggression, impulsive or risk-taking behaviours, self-injurious behaviour, abuse of drugs or alcohol, adverse sexual behaviour, and suicidal ideation.[6]

Trauma symptoms and associated disorders are wide-ranging, challenging, and can appear to hold the person hostage in a place of constant threat and danger.

How To Treat PTSD in Children and Teens?

At Khiron Clinics, our professional PTSD therapists offer a range of treatment modalities developed to aid children and adolescents in their recovery.

Somatic Experiencing

Somatic experiencing is a body-focused therapy that addresses the root causes of trauma symptoms. This therapy aims to release the stored energy from the body’s fight-flight-freeze response, which was activated at the time of the trauma. The approach guides clients to recognise and understand the physical sensations which arise in the body in response to trauma reminders or triggers. Through increased awareness of sensations, suppressed emotions, and defensive tension is released.

Sensorimotor Psychotherapy

Sensorimotor psychotherapy combines talk therapy with somatic therapy. This approach focuses on the physical experiences of the body to develop an awareness of mental states. As trauma profoundly affects the body, we believe it is essential to use the body as a gateway to understanding a person’s psychology and towards improved mental health. Sensorimotor psychotherapy directly treats the symptoms of trauma within the body, which facilitates emotional and cognitive healing.

Other Treatments

Khiron Clinics offer customised treatment plans tailored to an individual’s unique needs. Treatment may also include medication, EMDR, Internal Family Systems, Lifespan Integration and BSP (Brainspotting).

Conclusion

We understand that as a parent, you want the best for your child and that there is nothing worse than watching them suffer. Feeling powerless or confused when confronted with PTSD symptoms in your child is natural. However, PTSD is fully treatable, especially when caught early on. Together we can help your child regain control of their future and build a happy, healthy life free from the effects of trauma.

At Khiron Clinics C+A, attuned therapists can help you work through and process any unresolved trauma using specialist techniques and methods. Please contact us today.

At Khiron Clinics C+A, attuned therapists can help you work through and process any unresolved trauma using specialist techniques and methods. Please contact us today.

Sources

[1] “Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)”. Aacap.Org, 2019, https://www.aacap.org/AACAP/Families_and_Youth/Facts_for_Families/FFF-Guide/Posttraumatic-Stress-Disorder-PTSD-070.aspx.
[2] Cohen, Esther et al. “Posttraumatic Play In Young Children Exposed To Terrorism: An Empirical Study”. Infant Mental Health Journal, vol 31, no. 2, 2010, pp. 159-181. Wiley, doi:10.1002/imhj.20250. Accessed 17 Aug 2021.
[3] Fehon, Dwain C. et al. “A Comparison Of Adolescent Inpatients With And Without A History Of Violence Perpetration”. Journal Of Nervous & Mental Disease, vol 193, no. 6, 2005, pp. 405-411. Ovid Technologies (Wolters Kluwer Health), doi:10.1097/01.nmd.0000165294.41091.fc. Accessed 17 Aug 2021.
[4] Foa, Edna B. et al. “Psychometrics Of The Child PTSD Symptom Scale For DSM-5 For Trauma-Exposed Children And Adolescents”. Journal Of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology, vol 47, no. 1, 2017, pp. 38-46. Informa UK Limited, doi:10.1080/15374416.2017.1350962. Accessed 17 Aug 2021.
[5] Cohen, Judith A. “Practice Parameter For The Assessment And Treatment Of Children And Adolescents With Posttraumatic Stress Disorder”. Journal Of The American Academy Of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, vol 49, no. 4, 2010, pp. 414-430. Elsevier BV, doi:10.1016/j.jaac.2009.12.020. Accessed 17 Aug 2021.
[6] “VA.Gov | Veterans Affairs”. Ptsd.Va.Gov, 2018, https://www.ptsd.va.gov/understand/what/teens_ptsd.asp.

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