Many thanks to Hayley Kirchoff, LMHC, NCC, EMDR Trained Licensed Mental Health Counselor, for her comments.
Many people, children included, experience trauma in their lives. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, nearly two thirds of children report at least one traumatic event by the time they turn 16. While the range of and reaction to events can vary greatly, it is possible for anyone who experiences trauma to develop post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD for short.
Traumatic events can include:
· Physical, verbal, or sexual violence
· Car accidents or natural disasters
· Anything life threatening, like disease
· Witnessing any of the things listed above
This list is not exhaustive, as it’s critical to point out that anything perceived as traumatic by the child could lead to PTSD. Children have a spectrum of reactions to a spectrum of events, and what is hard for one might not have the same impact on another. Likewise, experiencing or witnessing anything listed here does not automatically mean a child will or will not develop PTSD.
There are a lot of factors that go into PTSD development, too. It’s important for parents and guardians to be aware of a child’s behavior should PTSD symptoms begin arising, because PTSD doesn’t have to be permanent and can be worked through with several therapy modalities.
What are the symptoms of PTSD?
Signs of PTSD in teens are similar to those in adults, but PTSD in children can look a little different so we’ve differentiated in the list below.
Symptoms of PTSD for everyone include:
· Nightmares and flashbacks
· Acting rashly or hostilely
· Isolating to avoid being retriggered
· Trouble focusing in school
· New or growing anxiety or nervousness
Symptoms of PTSD for younger children include:
· Fearful and regressive behaviors
· Trauma reenactment (play that reenacts the traumatic event)
Symptoms typically occur within the first month after the event. However, it’s totally normal for them to surface months or even years later, and symptoms can continue for a long time. In some cases, the trauma reaction may lessen for a while and, later, another life event might trigger the memories of the previous trauma.
You might also see a trauma response when a child enters a new developmental stage. For example, a child who was sexually abused may re-experience the trauma once they enter puberty, as they begin to learn more about their body and make sense of what happened to them from a different perspective.
How Can I Help My Child with PTSD?
As a caregiver, you want your child to be well so watching them struggle with trauma can make you feel powerless or unsure of how to help. However, finding the best coping strategies for them, including the list provided here, will help your child feel fully supported by you and get them the help they need to overcome their trauma.
First, it’s important you learn all you can about PTSD. The more you know, the better prepared and more empathic you’ll be to support your child through their struggle.
Second, it’s critical to find the best treatment option for your child because PTSD is treatable.
What types of therapy help PTSD?
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) –
This is a popular modality and is better known as talk therapy. A trauma-focused talk therapist can help identify the cause of distress and work toward correcting the irrational, often intrusive thoughts that a child may encounter each day. These therapists also rely on teaching appropriate coping mechanisms and relaxation techniques to help with stress.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) –
EMDR is a technique that uses guided eye movement exercises while recalling a traumatic event and works by talking about the past while being rooted in the present (via doing the exercises).
EMDR is such a phenomenal way to help individuals of any age process a traumatic event because it really speaks to the “heart” of the matter. Children who’ve experienced trauma may end up developing negative beliefs about themselves around the idea of safety and responsibility. If they go through life thinking, “I’m helpless” or “I’m responsible for everything”, they may develop feelings of depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem. By targeting this negative belief with EMDR, children are able to make sense of what happened to them, diminish the strength of their negative belief, and build upon positive past and present memories, so they can function more healthily in the present.
Though it’s been around for a while, this type of therapy is still considered a relatively newer one. However, it’s showing major success with helping children and adults overcome PTSD. The EMDR institute says, “More than 30 positive controlled outcome studies have been done on EMDR therapy. Some of the studies show that 84%-90% of single-trauma victims no longer have post-traumatic stress disorder after only three 90-minute sessions.”
Play therapy –
This is an excellent option for young children who might struggle to communicate. This includes art, games, and other activities to help children process trauma and learn how to cope.
When children play or use other creative means to express themselves, they’re integrating everything that’s happened to them from both an emotional and logical perspective (much like in EMDR). The use of metaphors in play therapy is also incredibly powerful because it allows the child to communicate about what happened to them in a non-threatening way, such as, “I wonder how the bear felt when that happened?” instead of asking the child to directly describe a traumatic event or feelings.
Your child can overcome the anxiety and stress from traumatic events, especially with a proactive parent or caretaker stepping in to get them the help they need from a trauma-trained professional who knows the clinical interventions designed to address trauma-related symptoms and PTSD. This is note-worthy because, while a trauma-informed therapist is sometimes a title used interchangeably, a trauma-trained therapist will have the best tools available to help children overcome trauma.
While childhood PTSD can be really difficult to witness and heal from the parent’s perspective, it’s entirely treatable. Both you and your child can get through this and feel fully prepared to look toward a brighter future.
*This article was originally posted on May 1, 2020. We decided to rerun the article, as we enter our eighth month of Covid19 reality, to support parents who are wondering whether Covid is a traumatic event, and whether they and/or their child are suffering from it. This June article from Yale School of Medicine is a helpful update that supports a trauma lens to inform our parenting. We hope you find it helpful.