If a child or young adult you know is displaying symptoms of PTSD, there are a number of treatment options that parents, guardians, and teachers can pursue.
Boston Children’s Hospital notes that a child’s recovery depends on a variety of factors, including the trauma’s severity and each individual’s resilience. Some children can recover within six months with treatment; for others, it may take longer. The important thing is that adolescents and kids feel supported and safe during treatment, particularly if they have been subject to abuse. Typically, children and young adults will be treated with psychotherapy, with medication as a secondary resource, but children and teens displaying depressive or panic symptoms alongside PTSD may be prescribed medication to complement psychotherapy.
Researchers generally agree that parents should be included in psychotherapeutic intervention for children and young adults with PTSD. This can include teaching parents and caregivers how to manage symptoms of stress and trauma in the child’s home environment. Equally, if caregivers and guardians are displaying emotional distress as a result of the trauma, they may also benefit from psychotherapy, so as to be better able to respond to the child’s needs.
Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprogramming
EMDR is recognised by the World Health Organisation (2013) as an effective therapy for children and adolescents who have experienced traumatic events. It also has the highest recommendation for Children and Adolescents with PTSD from the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies (ISTSS, 2018).
It is really important to find a suitable child EMDR therapist who has been specially trained to work with children who can build a good therapeutic relationship with both you and your child. Please ensure that the therapist has attended an accredited training in EMDR (as recognised by the EMDR UK Association) and has also completed further accredited training to use EMDR with children and adolescents.
Many NHS services within the UK, Ireland, Scotland and Wales offer EMDR within CAMHS teams for children and adolescents. There are also private or independent EMDR therapists or practitioners throughout the United Kingdom and Ireland and the EMDR Association website can help you to locate suitable accredited therapists in your area.
Talking therapies (with elements of CBT)
Otherwise known as ‘talk therapy’, this treatment will equip children – and often their families – with coping strategies. Children and teenagers will typically be gradually exposed to the traumatic event and experience, and the consequent memories, thoughts and feelings associated with the same. This helps the child to develop a feeling of mastery over their symptoms and learn how to better handle overwhelming feelings. Children and teenagers will usually learn how to:
- Identify feelings of fear
- Manage fear and anxiety via relaxation techniques
- Talk – or, in the case of young children, play-act – the traumatic event. This helps release unconscious feelings related to the trauma
- Re-write distorted cognitive assumptions – children will learn how to think about the trauma in a way that avoids self-blame or guilt
- Restore trust in others and foster a feeling of hope for the future
Play therapy is particularly effective for children aged 2 – 11. It can be significantly helpful for those children and teenagers who experience trouble expressing their thoughts and feelings. It gives children a confidential, nurturing environment in which they can play in the knowledge that they are safe – both physically and emotionally.
Play therapy helps a child or young adult to handle emotional problems and increase self-awareness, express feelings and experiences, manage behaviour, develop social skills, cope with traumatic symptoms and stress, and restore a sense of overall wellbeing.
Play therapy can include art therapy, dance, storytelling, drama or role-play, creative visualisation, and music.
There is very little empirical evidence as to the benefits of medication for children with PTSD. Some data suggests that citalopram, an SSRI, may be effective at mitigating the symptom clusters of PTSD in teenagers, so these may be prescribed in certain instances.
In combination with psychotherapy, medication can help ease a child if they are expressing severe anxiety, fear, or hopelessness. Medication is not, however, a ‘standalone’ treatment.
How you can help your child
‘Your child will need to feel safe with you and believe that you and other significant people in their lives can cope and manage whatever they are feeling and behaving. Your child may push boundaries but try to stay calm. They will want to know they are loved by you regardless of whatever has happened to them.
Let your child know that it is normal to have lots of different feelings and emotions after a trauma. Help them accept whatever emotions they are feeling, empathise with them and acknowledge that the trauma they have experienced has been really tough. Let them know you think they are very brave and courageous.
Keep the routine going for your child as best as possible as this provides a sense of familiarity. Distraction techniques can help take your child’s mind of what may be worrying them.
Some ideas include:
- Playing games
- Singing songs or listening to music
- Drawing and painting
- Playing with friends
- Mindfulness activities
- Swimming, ball games or other sporting activities
- Creative activities’
Please remember, these aren’t meant to be medical recommendations, but they’re tactics that have worked for others and might work for you, too. Be sure to work with a professional to find the best methods for you.