Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental illness related to memories that follow a terrifying physical or emotional event. PTSD causes the person who survived the event to have persistent, frightening thoughts and memories, or flashbacks, of the ordeal. People with PTSD often live their lives feeling emotionally numb.

PTSD is often thought of as an illness that soldiers get after going to war; however any person of any age may develop PTSD after experiencing other types of trauma such as:

  • Physical harm or threats of harm
  • Knowing that a friend or family member experienced a traumatic event
  • Being a victim of a crime, serious accident or physical abuse
  • Witnessing  a crime, serious accident or physical abuse
  • Natural disasters
  • Sexual molestation or assault

A child's or teen’s risk for developing PTSD may depend on how close they were to the trauma, the severity of the trauma, how long the trauma lasted and how often it occurred.  Not everyone who experiences trauma develops PTSD. Having a strong support system, good coping skills to get through difficult experiences, and being able to respond and act even when afraid are factors that reduce the risk of PTSD.

Children and teens with PTSD experience extreme emotional, mental and physical distress when exposed to situations that remind them of the traumatic event. Some may repeatedly experience the trauma in the form of nightmares and flashbacks.

The following are the most common symptoms of PTSD. However, each child or teen may experience PTSD in different ways, and may have some or all of these symptoms:

  • Trouble sleeping
  • Depression and guilt
  • Being on constant alert for trouble
  • Being easily startled
  • Loss of interest in things they used to enjoy
  • Feeling numb and lacking emotions; feeling alone
  • Becoming angry and possibly violent
  • Avoiding certain places or situations that bring back memories
  • Flashbacks or intrusive images (Flashbacks can come in the form of images, sounds, smells, or feelings; a person usually believes that the traumatic event is happening all over again.)
  • Losing touch with reality
  • Acting as if reliving the experience for a period of seconds or hours or, very rarely, days
  • Problems in school; difficulty concentrating
  • Worry about dying at an early age
  • Acting younger than their age (i.e., thumb sucking)
  • Feeling sick (headaches, stomachaches)
  • Substance abuse
  • Thoughts of hurting yourself or someone else 

In very young children, symptoms can include bedwetting, acting out the trauma while playing, being “clingy” with their caregivers, and possibly being unable to talk.

PTSD is diagnosed only if symptoms persist for more than one month and are adversely affecting the child's life and level of functioning. In those who are diagnosed with PTSD, symptoms usually begin within three months following the trauma, but can also start months or years later.

The length of the illness varies. Some people recover within six months; others have symptoms that last much longer.

A qualified mental health professional usually diagnoses PTSD in children or teens after meeting and talking with them and completing a full evaluation. 

PTSD can be treated. Getting help soon after the symptoms appear is very important and can help reduce the severity of symptoms. Parents should arrange an evaluation with a medical professional as soon as signs and symptoms of PTSD are noticed.

Specific treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder will be determined by your child's physician or mental health provider based on:

  • Your child's age, overall health and medical history
  • Extent of your child's symptoms
  • Your child's tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies
  • Expectations for the course of the disorder
  • Your opinion or preference

Treatment should always be based on a comprehensive evaluation of the child and family. Treatment recommendations may include psycho-social therapies or group therapy for the child or teen. Some children may also benefit from treatment with medications. 

Recovery from PTSD depends on the child’s or teen’s internal strengths, coping skills and resiliency (ability to “bounce back”) as well as severity of the trauma, frequency of re-exposure of traumatic events and the presence of other mental health disorders. Recovery is also influenced by the support given within the family environment. Parents play a vital supportive role in the treatment process. 

Parents cannot prevent all tragedy, but may work to prevent some types of traumatic events by:

  • Teaching children that it is OK to say NO to someone who tries to touch their body or approach them in any way that makes them feel uncomfortable
  • Teaching children that it is OK to tell an adult they trust if someone makes them feel uncomfortable
  • Encouraging violence-prevention programs within your community or local school system
  • Fostering school programs to deal with severe emotional distress 

For additional information on this topic, visit the National Institute of Mental Health website


Last Updated 07/2013