Childhood PTSD

Symptoms may look different in kids, but childhood PTSD is just as real

By Dwain Hebda

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Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a condition frequently diagnosed in our nation’s veterans, police officers and others in harm’s way. But experts also say children as young as preschool can suffer from their own version of PTSD that, while manifesting itself differently than the adult version, is no less serious. 

“PTSD is usually triggered by a traumatic event, which I would describe as anything that overwhelms a child’s ability to cope,” said Janelle von Storch, licensed professional counselor with Arkansas Families First in North Little Rock. 

“Usually it involves either they themselves or someone very close to them, where there’s a threat of those people being seriously injured or possibly dying as a result of the trauma or the event. PTSD is the result of how the person processes their traumatic experience.”

If it seems shocking that a kindergartner would have effectively the same issues as a solider returning from a war zone, consider the statistics. According to the US Department of Veterans Affairs, child protection services gets around three million reports nationwide each year, involving 5.5 million children. Just under one in three of these cases demonstrates proof of neglect or physical, emotional or sexual abuse with the additional caveat that up to two-thirds of total child abuse cases are not reported. 

Add to this the widespread issue of domestic abuse (which as many as three million children witness annually), poor children living in crime-ridden neighborhoods and run-of-the-mill episodes such as car accidents, and it’s easy to see the many ways that children can be traumatized right here at home. 

“[Depending on the study] between 15 and 43 percent of girls and 14 and 43 percent of boys will go through some type of traumatic event in their lifetime,” von Storch said. “On the other side of that, between 3 and 15 percent of girls and 1 to 6 percent of boys will actually develop PTSD as a result of their traumatic experience.”

PTSD can result after just one incident, such as a car accident or even divorce, or it can manifest over a period of sustained trauma such as domestic violence or living in a violent neighborhood. Parents’ own first-person reaction to such events (say, being in the car during an accident) goes a long way toward helping a child cope. But in some cases, parents may be unaware of what the child is going through, such as bullying at school. 

“It’s really important for parents to ask the right questions, to be in tune with their children and know what’s going on,” von Storch said. “Sometimes they see these behavioral issues and will automatically go to ‘What’s wrong with this child?’ The better question to ask is, ‘What’s happened here?’ and take the time to stop and listen and get a context for the shift in mood and behavior.”

The disorder not only looks different in children compared to adults, but among age groups of kids themselves. In very young children, it can take the form of regressing—reverting back to pre-potty training or throwing temper tantrums, for example. In other kids, they may act out the event using dolls or toys or repress the memory altogether.

“A lot of children that we see suffering from what might be PTSD are experiencing some memory loss or just sort of putting those memories behind them, or maybe they might get the event wrong,” said Sara McClain, director of business development with Rivendell Behavioral Health Services in Benton. “They might see [the event] in a different way, and when you hear them restate the facts in their mind they’re not adding up to the facts in reality.”

Other behaviors parents may notice underscore the child’s fears over the event, or one like it, happening again. 

“A lot of kids will seem upset and model these type of behaviors after an event where they’re constantly locking the doors or checking things to make sure that they’re safe,” McClain said. “A lot of kids hear about school violence and start getting interested in guns to protect themselves. We’ve seen a lot of that, innocently almost, where they’re just scared and want to be prepared. And they’re young, so they don’t really know what the safest way to prepare is.”

McClain said what makes the disorder hard to pin down is there is no universal code of trauma, let alone trying to predict how each individual person will respond to an event. That means two children will view being in a car accident differently, particularly if there are incumbent mental issues present to begin with.

“We don’t always know what’s going through their young minds,” McClain said. “Take divorce for instance; they can experience nightmares, recurring thoughts about separation from their family member or maybe just a sadness that’s so severe that they maybe have less PTSD and more depression. When something traumatic happens along the way, they’re in an even less healthy emotional state because of their depression.” 

Treatment generally includes counseling to help the youngster learn how to cope with stressful and traumatic experiences. In severe cases, medication may be required. The first and most important step, experts say, is adults understanding that PTSD is not a one-size-fits-all condition.

“We’re all essentially made up of our experiences and what’s traumatic to one child may not be to another child within a given experience,” McClain said. “Parents need to look at the whole picture and think about how, as an adult, if they were to have an experience that was difficult, they might handle it better than the next person or they might not. What’s important is to determine how impactful that was to the individual child and let that dictate your response.” 

Log on to arfamiliesfirst.com or rivendellofarkansas.com for more information on childhood PTSD.