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Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in Children and Teens

(En español, presione aquí)

 What is post-traumatic stress disorder?
 What is the cause?
 What are the symptoms?
 How is it diagnosed?
 How is it treated?
 What can I do to help my child?

What is post-traumatic stress disorder?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can start after a child sees or is involved in a very stressful event. The event usually involves a real or possible severe injury or the threat of death. The stressful event may be:

After such an event, children may have trouble sleeping, have nightmares, and feel emotionally numb and cut off from others. For most children, these symptoms stop within a month after the event. When these symptoms continue for a long time, it is called post-traumatic stress disorder.

If children have had PTSD once, then they are at greater risk for future PTSD if they experience another traumatic event. Most children and teens can get over PTSD with good treatment and family support.

What is the cause?

It is not known why one person involved in something like a robbery, rape, or severe car accident develops PTSD while another does not. Some factors that may lead to PTSD include:

PTSD can occur at any age.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms can start right after the stressful event, but sometimes symptoms start 3 months or more after the event. When the trauma is a series of ongoing bad events, the symptoms may come on slowly and get worse over time.

PTSD symptoms fall into 3 areas. Your child may not have all the symptoms, but most children with PTSD have some symptoms in each area.

Children with PTSD may also:

Children may also feel very fearful, helpless, angry, or sad. They may feel guilty, thinking that they somehow caused the event. They may deny what happened. Anniversaries of the event can often cause a flood of emotions and bad memories.

How is it diagnosed?

Contact a mental health professional who specializes in working with children and teens. Sometimes it is hard to tell PTSD from other childhood problems like depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder.

Your healthcare provider or therapist will ask about your child’s symptoms. He or she will make sure your child does not have a medical illness or drug or alcohol problem that could cause the symptoms.

How is it treated?

Therapy is usually the first and most effective treatment.

Play therapy allows children under 9 years old to act out their fears with toys and people figures. It is often very helpful. Play therapists help children feel more confident and less fearful.

Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) teaches specific skills to manage fears and negative thoughts about the stressful event.

Older children, teens, and adults often do very well with eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). EMDR uses eye movements to activate the brain while your child remembers the stressful event and feelings at the time. In EMDR the therapist helps the child to be able to think about the event without feeling so upset.

Other behavioral therapies are also useful. Gradual exposure therapy teaches the child to stay relaxed while being exposed to things that remind him or her of the trauma.

Family therapy may also be helpful. Family therapy treats the whole family rather than just the child. Children often feel very supported when parents and siblings attend therapy with them and work as a group.

Medicines are sometimes needed when the symptoms are very severe. Medicines may help reduce symptoms of anxiety and panic. If your child also has depression, medicines for depression may be prescribed.

It is important to have an experienced professional working with you and your child. Your child may need continuing treatment even after he or she feels better. Symptoms may return if children are exposed to something that reminds them of the trauma.

What can I do to help my child?

Get emergency care if your child or teen has ideas of suicide, harming himself, or harming others.

For more information, contact organizations such as:

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Last Modified: 2013-08-07

Last Reviewed: 2012-02-20

Website Updated: March 2014

Developed by RelayHealth.
Published by RelayHealth. © 2014 RelayHealth and/or one of its affiliates. All Rights Reserved.

This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.

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