The mental health community has come to understand that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can be as common in children as in adults. What began as a disorder mostly of combat veterans has been shown to affect numerous trauma survivors across many situations.
Trauma comes in many forms. A child could be traumatized by a major event, such as physical or sexual abuse, a car accident, or by witnessing a horrifying event. Those are the easier ones to identify. But children also can be traumatized from a conglomeration of daily toxic stress, such as living in poverty, constant bullying, or moving to a place much different than their previous geographic location (culture shock).
It can be hard for parents and caregivers to know when a child is having a normal stress reaction and when it might be something more. PTSD in younger children can present in numerous ways via a variety of symptoms, such as increased sadness, withdrawal or aggression. As mentioned, many of these symptoms are common in other childhood conditions and illnesses, and can occasionally just be a part of normal development.
But there are key differences and signs to look for. Watch for sudden changes in your child. Children who suddenly begin frequently complaining of feeling sick or not wanting to do activities that they used to enjoy can be unconsciously signaling a trauma response and a cry for further help. In addition, changes in sleep patterns, frequent nightmares, and decrease or increase in appetite also often occur in a PTSD trauma response.
There are other signs parents can look for. First, watch your child’s play. Young children often use play to say what they can’t find a way to say with words. Look for changes in play, such as increased aggression or less distress tolerance.
Parents also can guide play activities and utilize a few techniques used by mental health professionals to monitor trauma responses. For example, have your child draw a picture or act out a scene with dolls or puppets. If the child refers to something that might possibly have been traumatic to him or her via the activity, then he or she may be having difficulty processing the trauma. You may want to seek the advice of a qualified professional for further evaluation.
Regressions in development may be a second warning sign that something is going on. For example, your child spontaneously doesn’t want to sleep in his or her own room anymore, or has become fearful of the dark suddenly. Frequent bedwetting can be another sign to explore. These behavior changes often are the result of a trauma that needs further intervention.
It is important for parents to remember that young children do not always use words to convey messages. As such, parents and caregivers need to become detectives. Monitor your child’s behaviors. Be attentive to signs that suggest more might be going on than normal developmental processes. Contact your pediatrician or a mental health professional if you feel there is cause for concern.
Sad child photo available from Shutterstock