Understanding PTSD & C-PTSD in children and young adults
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a condition that some people develop after experiencing, witnessing or hearing about a traumatic life-threatening event or serious injury. Traumatic events can make us feel that our lives are unpredictable, that we are out of control, find it difficult to feel safe and trust other people, ourselves and our judgements. Our experiences often feel unfair, unjust, inhumane and cruel and can make us question our assumptions about the world and others. We can lose faith and become disconnected from others.
It’s normal to have these emotions, along with upsetting memories, feeling on edge, or have trouble sleeping after this type of event, but if symptoms last more than a few months and interfere with your day-to-day life, it may be PTSD. PTSD is a normal reaction to an abnormal situation.
Exposure to trauma is common amongst young people, and we know that by the end of adolescence, about 75% of young people will have experienced some kind of traumaic event. The defining characteristic of a traumatic event is its capacity to provoke fear, helplessness, or horror in response to the threat of injury or death and therefore can affect anyone (you can read more about the causes of PTSD in children and young adults here).
The majority of people exposed to traumatic events experience some short-term distress, but eventually, their trauma fades to a memory – painful, but not destructive. However, some people who experience a trauma go on to develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) which can cause a range of symptoms which can affect their day-to day life.
Some studies show a prevalence of PTSD in children ranging from around 6-10%, with the most commonly reported traumatic experiences being ‘witnessing injury to or death of others, hearing news of other’s sudden death or accident, and personally experiencing a sudden injury or accident’.
Why is it important to recognise PTSD in children and young adults?
Just like in adults, PTSD can cause severe, all encompassing and life changing symptoms. Treating PTSD means recognising the symptoms, getting a diagnosis and undergoing treatment. Without treatment, someone with PTSD may struggle with every day activities, and experience terrifying flashbacks and nightmares.
Untreated, PTSD and C-PTSD can affect many areas of a child or young adults life including:
- attachments and relationships
- physical health (body and brain development)
- emotional responses
- thinking and learning
- long term health consequences
Young children who experience trauma are at particular risk because their rapidly developing brains are very vulnerable. Early childhood trauma has been associated with reduced size of the brain cortex. This area is responsible for many complex functions including memory, attention, perceptual awareness, thinking, language, and consciousness. These changes may affect IQ and the ability to regulate emotions, and the child may become more fearful and may not feel as safe or as protected.
Recently, a 33-year follow-up of the children who survived the Aberfan land-slide disaster found that 29% of those traced and interviewed still met criteria for PTSD. In other words, in the absence of effective therapy, the long-term effects of life threatening, traumatic events in childhood can be severe.
Examples of PTSD in children
This video below from Nip in the Bud shows some real world examples of children who have developed PTSD (from burglary, and from sexual assault) and how it affected their day to day life. Through their words we see the importance of early intervention by parents and teachers. Please note – this video is not intended to be viewed by children.
When should I seek professional help for my child?
For children or young adults who show mild stress reactions in the first four weeks after a trauma, watchful waiting is recommended. Many young people will recover in the first month without any professional help.
However, it they are having severe symptoms in the first month, or if symptoms persist for longer than a month, help should be sought via the family GP. Find out more about treatment for PTSD here.
- Atle Dyregrov & William Yule, A Review of PTSD in Children, Child and Adolescent Mental Health Volume 11, No. 4, 2006, pp. 176–184, doi: 10.1111/j.1475-3588.2005.00384.x
- PTSD in children – Nip in the Bud
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Treatments for PTSD
It is possible for PTSD to be successfully treated many years after the traumatic event occurred, which means it is never too late to seek help. For some, the first step may be watchful waiting, then exploring therapeutic options such as individual or group therapy – but the main treatment options in the UK are psychological treatments such as Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprogramming (EMDR) and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).
Traumatic events can be very difficult to come to terms with, but confronting and understanding your feelings and seeking professional help is often the only way of effectively treating PTSD. You can find out more in the links below, or here.