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PTSD In Children And Teens

Published by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, this article includes statistics on PTSD in children, signs and symptoms, and treatment options.

What events cause PTSD in children?


Children and teens could have PTSD if they have lived through an event that could have caused them or someone else to be killed or badly hurt. Such events include sexual or physical abuse or other violent crimes. Disasters such as floods, school shootings, car crashes, or fires might also cause PTSD. Other events that can cause PTSD are war, a friend's suicide, or seeing violence in the area they live.

Child protection services in the U.S. get around three million reports each year. This involves 5.5 million children. Of the reported cases, there is proof of abuse in about 30%. From these cases, we have an idea how often different types of abuse occur:

  • 65% neglect

  • 18% physical abuse

  • 10% sexual abuse

  • 7% psychological (mental) abuse


Also, three to ten million children witness family violence each year. Around 40% to 60% of those cases involve child physical abuse. (Note: It is thought that two-thirds of child abuse cases are not reported.)

How many children get PTSD?


Studies show that about 15% to 43% of girls and 14% to 43% of boys go through at least one trauma. Of those children and teens who have had a trauma, 3% to 15% of girls and 1% to 6% of boys develop PTSD. Rates of PTSD are higher for certain types of trauma survivors.

What are the risk factors for PTSD?


Three factors have been shown to raise the chances that children will get PTSD. These factors are:

  • How severe the trauma is

  • How the parents react to the trauma

  • How close or far away the child is from the trauma


Children and teens that go through the most severe traumas tend to have the highest levels of PTSD symptoms. The PTSD symptoms may be less severe if the child has more family support and if the parents are less upset by the trauma. Lastly, children and teens who are farther away from the event report less distress.

Other factors can also affect PTSD. Events that involve people hurting other people, such as rape and assault, are more likely to result in PTSD than other types of traumas. Also, the more traumas a child goes through, the higher the risk of getting PTSD. Girls are more likely than boys to get PTSD.

What does PTSD look like in children?


School-aged children (ages 5-12)


These children may not have flashbacks or problems remembering parts of the trauma, the way adults with PTSD often do. Children, though, might put the events of the trauma in the wrong order. They might also think there were signs that the trauma was going to happen. As a result, they think that they will see these signs again before another trauma happens. They think that if they pay attention, they can avoid future traumas.

Children of this age might also show signs of PTSD in their play. They might keep repeating a part of the trauma. These games do not make their worry and distress go away. For example, a child might always want to play shooting games after he sees a school shooting. Children may also fit parts of the trauma into their daily lives. For example, a child might carry a gun to school after seeing a school shooting.

Teens (ages 12-18)


Teens are in between children and adults. Some PTSD symptoms in teens begin to look like those of adults. One difference is that teens are more likely than younger children or adults to show impulsive and aggressive behaviors.

What are the other effects of trauma on children?


Besides PTSD, children and teens that have gone through trauma often have other types of problems. Much of what we know about the effects of trauma on children comes from the research on child sexual abuse. This research shows that sexually abused children often have problems with

  • Fear, worry, sadness, anger, feeling alone and apart from others, feeling as if people are looking down on them, low self-worth, and not being able to trust others

  • Behaviors such as aggression, out-of-place sexual behavior, self-harm, and abuse of drugs or alcohol


Click "Read More" for information on how PTSD is treated in children and teens and for other resources on the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

 

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