Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder – or PTSD – is the name given to a set of symptoms that can occur after someone has been exposed to or experienced a traumatic event. Just like adults, children and young people can be involved in or witness frightening, dangerous or threatening events, such as crime or a road accident. These events might be a single incident or might be experienced by the young person several times over months or years. Being witness to such incidents, and then never fully dealing with an issue – such as talking about it – can then lead to the person suffering PTSD.
Signs and Symptoms
Following a traumatic experience, it is normal that a young person would feel a range of emotions, including anxiety, sadness, fear, and grief; usually these feelings would begin to reduce after a few weeks. As all young people are different, it is difficult to know exactly how each young person might react to a traumatic experience. This might depend on the age and the ability of the child to understand and process the event, as well as the type of trauma experienced.
PTSD may be considered if the upsetting and confusing thoughts and feelings about the incident go on for more than a few weeks, impacting on the young person’s quality of life and general ability to function.
Some signs you might notice are:
- Re-enacting the trauma through play
- New worries and fears
- Extreme emotions
- Appearing withdrawn
- Unable to concentrate
- More angry and aggressive
- Difficulty sleeping or having nightmares
- Fear of being alone/clingy
- Experiencing distressing memories and thoughts about the trauma
- Experiencing ‘flashbacks’ or re-experiencing the event in their mind
- Feelings of guilt and blame
- Fears about the future
- Behaving recklessly or impulsively
- Avoiding places or people that remind them of the traumatic event
- Start bedwetting and thumb-sucking again
- Being irritable and disobedient
- Complaining of physical symptoms such as headaches and stomach aches
Any traumatic event that a young person is involved in, where they felt terror or thought that theirs or someone else’s life was in danger, could be a cause for long-lasting effects, leading to PTSD.
These events might include:
- Serious road traffic accident
- Witnessing violence or death
- Violent attacks
- A major disaster
- Being witness to or experiencing physical, emotional or sexual abuse or sexual assault
- Terrorist attack
- Witnessing domestic violence
What can I do?
Your support, reassurance and understanding are very important during this time. Sometimes other family members, such as siblings, may also need support, as they may also have experienced the same traumatic event.
After a traumatic event it is normal that a young person will be distressed, upset, worried or anxious. It can be helpful to let your child talk about the event, if they want to, as this can help them to process the event and make sense of what has happened. Sometimes it can be difficult for young people to find the words to describe their feelings, so encouraging them to draw or write things down can be a helpful way to enable them to express their emotions.
Maintaining routine and structure following a traumatic incident or event will help your child to feel a sense of control and normality. Avoid making sudden or drastic changes to home and school-life, as this could cause your child further stress and anxiety.
Ensure that teachers and other people involved in your child’s care and day-to-day life are aware of your child’s trauma and their experience, so that they too can offer support and will be aware of any changes in your child’s behaviour.
If your child has suffered a traumatic event, and the distressing thoughts and feelings surrounding this have not started to reduce after about four weeks, then you should visit a GP to discuss your concerns. A GP can help to ensure that the right support for your child is put in place, as well as discussing any stress or worries that you may be experiencing yourself.
You may also find the information in this leaflet helpful: NHS Info around Trauma