When kids act out and misbehave, we’re quick to assume that they’re spoiled, lack discipline, or are just having one of those days. For the most part, it really is usually one of those things—not that parent’s want to admit that their child is anything less than perfect. Unfortunately though, some poor behavior could actually be an expression of something much more serious, like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
It’s hard for a lot of people to even imagine that a child could suffer from PTSD. Most of us think of it as an adult disorder, often because we only ever really hear about PTSD when they’re talking about soldiers returning home from duty. Your child couldn’t possibly be that traumatized by something in their life, could they?
According to the U.S. Department of National Affairs National Center for PTSD, a child can develop PTSD from having lived through or witnessed an event that could have caused them or someone close to them serious harm or death, like sexual or physical abuse, violence, or things like car crashes, floods, or fires. Children may also suffer from PTSD from hearing about something life-threating that happened to a caregiver. It doesn’t need to be something as dramatic as a serious accident or act of violence either; it could stem from knowing that a parent has had cancer or some other serious illness.
PTSD’s Expression in Children
PTSD can look different in children of different ages and entirely different from what you would see in an adult with PTSD depending on how young the child is. Different age groups exhibit different behaviors from PTSD. Here’s a look at how different age groups express symptoms of PTSD.
Toddlers and Children Under 12
- Bedwetting, even after having been potty-trained
- Acting especially clingy with a parent or caregiver
- Forgetting how or being unable to speak
- Being easily startled and jumpy
- Acting out the traumatic event while playing
- Flashbacks of the traumatic event
- Avoidance of places or things that remind them of the event
- Physical symptoms like headaches or stomach aches
- Anxiety and depression
- Sleep issues
- Lack of appetite or overeating
- Acting younger than they are/baby-like
It’s also been shown that older children may fit aspects of the trauma into their daily lives, like carrying a gun to school after witnessing a shooting. Some children continuously repeat the trauma throughout the day.
Teens (over 12)
Teens can show many of the same symptoms listed in the younger children as well as those of adults with PTSD. The biggest difference is that teens tend to be more likely to develop disruptive behaviors and “act out.” Teens tend to express any of the following:
- Impulsive behavior that can be destructive
- Disrespectful behavior
- Disruptive behavior, such as acting out at home or in public
- Constant thoughts of revenge when the trauma was related to abuse; either their own or witnessed
- Feelings of guilt for not having been able to prevent the event or trauma
- Fears of dying at a young age and not living to do certain things, like graduate, get married, or have kids
- Angry outbursts with seemingly little provocation
- Issues with concentration
- Limited range of emotions and a feeling of numbness
- Avoidance of getting close or attached to others
- Withdrawing from things and people they used to enjoy and care about
- Turning to drugs or alcohol or other even promiscuous behavior to try to numb their feelings
As you can see, there are all kinds of expressions of PTSD to look out for in a child that has been through something traumatic. Often the signs of PTSD can also be mistaken for other disorders like ADHD or anxiety disorder. In some cases the event is obvious and known to parents and friends, but in others the trauma may not seem like it was that big a deal to others around the child that’s suffering. In cases like this, understanding how PTSD looks in children can be the only way that you can be alerted to what’s going on.
You can learn more about psychological disorders in children by visiting Healthline.
Adrienne is a freelance writer and author who has written extensively on all things health and fitness for more than a decade. When she’s not holed-up in her writing shed researching an article or off interviewing health professionals, she can be found frolicking about her beach town with husband and dogs in tow or splashing about the lake trying to master the stand-up paddle board.
PTSD in Children and Teens. (January 2014).U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs National Center for PTSD. Retrieved on February 16, 2014, from http://www.ptsd.va.gov/public/family/ptsd-children-adolescents.asp
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder – Facts for Families. (March 2011). American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP). Retrieved on February 16, 2014, from http://www.aacap.org/AACAP/Families_and_Youth/Facts_for_Families/Facts_for_Families_Pages/Posttraumatic_Stress_Disorder_70.aspx
PTSD Symptoms in Children Age Six and Younger. Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA). Retrieved on February 16, 2014, from http://www.adaa.org/living-with-anxiety/children/posttraumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd/symptoms