PTSD Signs & Symptoms

What is PTSD?

Understanding Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that develops after a child or adolescent has experienced or witnessed a traumatic event that has threatened their safety and caused a significant amount of fear. The development of PTSD can cause intense feelings of distress, making it extremely difficult for a child or adolescent to function properly on a day-to-day basis. Furthermore, the continued disturbing thoughts and feelings associated with PTSD can make a child feel as if they no longer have control over their life.

Posttraumatic stress disorder will develop differently in each child or adolescent. Most commonly the symptoms of this disorder will develop within hours or days following the traumatic event, but sometimes it can take up to weeks or months for the symptoms to develop. While any event that leaves a young person feeling helpless and afraid for their life can trigger the onset of PTSD, some of the most common traumatic events that can lead to PTSD include:

  • Natural disasters
  • Car crashes
  • Sudden death of a loved one
  • Rape
  • Kidnapping
  • Assault
  • Abuse or neglect

If you have a child or adolescent who is displaying symptoms of PTSD it is critical that you get them professional treatment in order to reduce their symptoms and improve their overall functioning.


Statistics on PTSD

Multiple research studies conducted in the United States have indicated that as many as 43% of teens have experienced at least one traumatic event in their lifetime. Of those young people, about 15% of girls and 6% of boys met the diagnostic criteria for PTSD.

Causes and Risks

Causes and Risk Factors for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Any child or adolescent who experiences or witnesses a traumatic event is at risk for the development of posttraumatic stress disorder. While it is impossible to identify who will develop PTSD as the result of a traumatic experience, there are a number of risk factors that can increase a young person’s vulnerability.

Genetic: While PTSD may not have a strong genetic component, researchers still believe that genes play some type of role in the onset of this disorder.  For example, young people who have a family history of anxiety disorders or depression are at an increased risk for the development of PTSD.

Environment: The development of PTSD is a direct result of experiencing, witnessing, or learning about a trauma and so a young person’s environment is going to play a significant role in the development of this mental health disorder.  For example, experiencing a natural disaster, being the victim of a crime, being in a car accident, or the sudden death of a loved one are all environmental factors that can trigger the onset of this disorder.

Risk Factors:

  • Previous traumatic experiences
  • Family history of PTSD or depression
  • History of physical or sexual abuse
  • History of substance abuse
  • Personal history of mental illness
  • High levels of stress
  • Lack of support after trauma
  • Lack of coping skills

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and Symptoms of PTSD

The signs and symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder in children and adolescents can present differently than the symptoms that adults with PTSD will experience.  Furthermore, while symptoms are going to vary from child to child there are three main types of symptoms, including re-experiencing the traumatic event, avoiding things that remind one of the trauma, and increased anxiety or emotional arousal.  The following are examples of symptoms that children or adolescents may exhibit:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Losing previously-acquired skills (such as toilet training)
  • Somber or compulsive play, where themes of trauma are repeated
  • Acting out trauma through play
  • Clings to parents
  • Wets the bed
  • Avoidance of certain people, places, activities, or events
  • Bedwetting
  • Being unable or unwilling to talk
  • Irritable behavior
  • Startles easily
  • Self-harm
  • Aggression
  • Acting out sexually

Physical symptoms:

  • Sleep problems
  • Aches and pains with no apparent causes
  • Flashbacks
  • Sleepwalking
  • Intense physical reactions when reminded of the trauma (e. g. nausea, muscle tension, profuse sweating, pounding heart, rapid breathing, etc. )

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Nightmares
  • Problems concentrating
  • Depersonalization
  • Derealization

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Fear of being separated from parent
  • Development of new phobias
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Extreme sadness
  • Depression
  • Emotional numbness
  • Suicidal thought or actions
  • Loss of interest in activities


Effects of PTSD

Posttraumatic stress disorder is associated with a number of negative consequences including high levels of social, occupational, and physical disability.  If not properly treated these detrimental effects can continue to impact a child or adolescent into adulthood.  Some of the most commonly experienced negative effects may include:

  • Poor social and family relationships
  • Inability to perform well at school
  • Poor physical health
  • Development of emotional and behavioral problems
  • Anxiety disorder
  • Depression
  • Low self-esteem
  • Inability to trust others
  • Substance abuse
  • Self-harm
  • Suicidal thoughts and behaviors


PTSD and other Co-Occurring Disorders

Children and adolescents with posttraumatic stress disorder are 80% more likely than those without this disorder to have symptoms that meet the diagnostic criteria for another mental health disorder.  Some of the most common disorders that have been known to co-occur with posttraumatic stress disorder include:

  • Depressive disorders
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Substance use disorders
  • Conduct disorder
  • Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD)
  • Separation anxiety disorder

I could not have have asked for a more outstanding therapist. She immediately understood my daughters needs, and was always forthright about what needed to be done. She was fabulous!

– Anonymous Parent