How does PTSD symptoms in children look like?
Ayo was only 13 when she was attacked by a group of men on her way home from school. They took turns taunting her and then they each raped her. They tried to kill her by stabbing her, but she survived and made an almost full recovery. For days and weeks after this event, Ayo was not herself. She couldn’t eat, sleep or be by herself.
During the day, she would be plagued by memories of the attack, and when she closed her eyes at night, she had terrible dreams about rape and would wake up screaming. She was constantly anxious, tensed and easily startled. Her mother noticed the terrible change in her daughter and took her to a counsellor, to whom she revealed the rape. The counsellor made an appointment for her with a psychiatrist and Ayo’s journey to healing began.
This story is based on a real person’s experience – that’s one scenario on how PTSD symptoms in children look like, although it has been tailored to our society and identifying information has been changed.
What Is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?
The meaning is in the name. Post-traumatic stress disorder, better referred to as PTSD, is a mental disorder that may occur in people that have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event like a natural disaster, a significant accident, coercion, war/combat, or rape or who are threatened with death, sexual violence or serious injury.
People who’ve experienced trauma may have a little difficulty adjusting and coping to life afterwards; this is usually cured by time and a little self-loving. But if the symptoms go downhill, last for months or perhaps years, and interfere together with the person’s day-to-day functioning, they may have PTSD.
PTSD has been known by many names in the past, like “shell shock” during the years of World War I and “combat fatigue” after World War II, but PTSD doesn’t just happen to soldiers or combat veterans. This disorder can happen to anyone and everyone, of any ethnicity, nationality or culture, and at any age. Sadly, children and teens are not left out.
From Trauma to Disorder: Symptoms of PTSD
Post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms may start within one month of a traumatic event, but sometimes symptoms might not appear until years after the event. These symptoms cause significant problems in social or work situations and in relationships such as interfering with your ability to carry out daily tasks.
PTSD symptoms in children and adults are summed into four categories, but each symptom can vary in severity.
Intrusive thoughts like repeated, involuntary memories; distressing dreams; or flashbacks of the traumatic event. Flashbacks could also be so vivid that the victims feel they’re re-living the traumatic experience or seeing it before their eyes.
Avoiding reminders of the traumatic event may include avoiding people, places, activities, objects and situations which will trigger distressing memories. People may attempt to avoid remembering or considering the traumatic event. They’ll resist talking about what happened or how they feel about it.
Inability to recollect important aspects of the traumatic event, negative thoughts and feelings resulting in ongoing and distorted beliefs about oneself or others (e.g., “I am terrible,” “No one is to be trusted”); distorted thoughts about the cause or consequences of the event resulting in wrongly blaming self or others; ongoing fear, horror, anger, guilt or shame; much less interest in activities previously enjoyed; feeling detached or estranged from others; or being unable to experience positive emotions (a devoid of happiness or satisfaction).
Arousal and reactive symptoms may include being irritable and having angry outbursts; behaving recklessly or in a very self-destructive way; being overly watchful of one’s surroundings in a suspecting manner; being easily startled; or having problems concentrating or sleeping.
Many people who are exposed to traumatic events experience symptoms like those described above within the days following the event. For an individual to be diagnosed with PTSD, however, symptoms must last for at least a month and must cause significant distress or problems that affect the individual’s daily functioning.
Some individuals develop symptoms within three months of the trauma, but symptoms may appear later and sometimes persist for months and sometimes years. PTSD often occurs with other related conditions, like depression, substance use, memory problems and other physical and psychological state problems.
Before a PTSD diagnosis is made, exposure to a traumatic event is required. However, the exposure may well be indirect instead of first hand. As an example, PTSD could occur in personal learning about the detailed killing of a family or friend. It may also occur as a result of repeated exposure to horrible details of trauma like cops exposed to details of kid abuse cases.
PTSD In Children: How Does It Look Like?
Children with PTSD just like adults have intense, disturbing thoughts and feelings associated with their experience that lasts long after the traumatic event has ended. They relive the horrors of the event through flashbacks or nightmares; they feel sadness, fear or anger; and they may feel detached or estranged from people.
These children may avoid situations or people that remind them of the traumatic event, and may also have strong negative reactions to something as ordinary as a blast or an accidental touch.
Signs of PTSD in teens are like those in adults, but PTSD symptoms in children can look a bit different. Younger kids show more fearful and regressive behaviours and they may reenact the trauma through play.
Many people endure a traumatic event after a period of adjustment. Seek help from an expert if your child or teen has been exhibiting PTSD symptoms for over a month. Remember that over the rest, your child needs your support and understanding.
Sometimes other relations like parents and siblings will need support too. While family and friends can play a key role in helping someone recover, help usually is required from a trained therapist.
PTSD symptoms in Children: At What Age Can Trauma Affect A Child?
Is your 6-year-old safe from PTSD after a traumatic experience? PTSD is more commonly associated with teens and adults but younger children around the ages of 6 and above do suffer from PTSD. When it comes to babies and toddlers, it is harder to diagnose. It’s basically like threading on murky waters due to the inability of younger children (0 – 6 years) to fully express themselves.
However, according to the recent edition Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of mental Disorders, DSM-5, PTSD can affect children aged 6 or younger, and to this effect, a new diagnostic guideline was published. 4 criteria are to be meant before a child in this age group can be diagnosed of the disorder:
- Involved directly or indirectly in a trauma
- Experiences at least one intrusive symptom
- Experiences at least one arousal or reactivity symptom
- Experiences at least one avoidance symptom or mood change
Trauma does affect a child and caring for a child with PTSD isn’t an easy job but it gets easier when you’re equipped with the right information.
1. Provide a period of adjustment for the child after a stressful event. During this point, parents and caregivers need to supply support, love, and understanding.
2. Do not attempt to make the child’s schedule or life different from what is was before the event. This implies not allowing your child to require off an excessive amount of time from school or activities, whether or not it’s hard at the start.
3. Let them speak about the traumatic event when and if they feel ready. Praise them for being strong once they do discuss it, but don’t force the difficulty if they do not want to share their thoughts. Some kids may choose to draw or compose their experiences. What you can do is to encourage them to help express their feelings.
4. Reassure them that their feelings are typical and that they are not “going crazy.” Support and understanding from parents can help with handling difficult feelings.
5. Some kids and teenagers find it helpful to get involved in a support group for trauma survivors. Look online or talk to your paediatrician or the school counsellor to search out groups nearby.
6. Get professional help immediately if you have got any concern that a child or teen has thoughts of self-harm. Thoughts of suicide are serious at any age and should be dealt with immediately.
7. Help build self-confidence by encouraging kids to form everyday decisions where appropriate. PTSD can make kids feel powerless, so parents can help by showing their kids that they need control over some parts of their lives.
8. Depending on a child’s age, parents might consider letting him or her choose a weekend activity or decide things like what’s for dinner or what to wear.
9. Tell them that the traumatic event isn’t their fault. Encourage kids to speak about any feelings of guilt, but don’t allow them to blame themselves for what happened.
10. Stay involved with caregivers. It is important to speak to teachers, babysitters, and people who are involved in your child’s life.
11. Do not criticize regressive behaviour (returning to a previous level of development). If your child wants to sleep with the lights on or take a favourite stuffed animal to bed, let them. Having something familiar, some small measure of comfort could help them get through this difficult time. Speak to your child’s doctor or therapist if you are not sure about what’s helpful for your son or daughter.
12. Be sure to also take care of yourself. Helping your child or teen deal with PTSD will be very challenging and will require plenty of patience and support.
Now, Let’s Talk Treatment
For a few people, symptoms of PTSD subside or disappear over time. Others can live normally with the help of their family, friends and support system. But many people with PTSD need professional treatment to live through psychological distress that may be intense and disabling.
Psychiatrists and other mental health professionals use various effective and research-proven methods to assist people to endure PTSD. Both talk therapy (psychotherapy) and drugs provide effective evidence-based treatments for PTSD. One category of psychotherapy, cognitive behaviour therapies (CBT), is incredibly effective. Cognitive processing therapy, prolonged systematic desensitization and stress inoculation therapy are among the categories of CBT used to treat PTSD.
This therapy works by modifying painful negative emotions such as shame, guilt, etc. and beliefs such as “I have failed”; “the world is dangerous” because of the trauma. Therapists help the person confront such distressing memories and emotions.
Prolonged Desensitization Technique uses repeated, detailed imagining of the trauma or progressive exposures to symptom “triggers” in an exceedingly safe, controlled manner to help an individual face and gain control of fear and distress and learn to cope. For instance, video game programs are accustomed to help war veterans with PTSD re-experience the battlefield in an exceedingly controlled, therapeutic way.
It aims to arm the individual with the mandatory coping skills to successfully defend against stressful triggers through the exposure of milder levels of stress, very similar to a vaccine is inoculated to forestall infection after exposure to illness.
Group Therapy encourages survivors of comparable traumatic events to share their experiences and reactions during a comfortable and non-judgmental setting. The group members help each other realize that several people would have responded identically and felt the same emotions. It ultimately helps them know that they’re not alone.
Other forms of psychotherapies like interpersonal, supportive and psychodynamic therapies addresses the emotional and interpersonal aspects of PTSD. These may be helpful for people who don’t want to expose themselves to reminders of their traumas.
PTSD symptoms in children and adults can also be managed by medications. Besides, the symptom relief that medication provides allows many people to participate more effectively in psychotherapy. Some of these medications help to combat PTSD-related problems like physical agitation, nightmares, sleep problems and anxiety.
Some antidepressants such as SSRIs (selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors) and SNRIs (serotonin-norepinephrine re-uptake inhibitors) are commonly used to treat the core symptoms of PTSD. SSRIs can be used alone to combat PTSD or can be used in combination with psychotherapy or other treatments.
Complementary and alternative therapies are also routinely used to manage PTSD. Examples include acupuncture and animal-assisted therapy.
The bottom line is that getting treatment as soon as possible can help prevent PTSD symptoms from getting worse. Reach out to a close friend or loved one if you show symptoms of PTSD. If you have a faith community, then contact a minister, a spiritual leader or someone in this community. See a doctor or a mental health professional. And most of all, remember that the events of your past do not define you, and you deserve all the good things life has to offer.