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Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Symptoms in Children

written by: Alicia Miller • edited by: Paul Arnold • updated: 1/19/2011

Post traumatic stress disorder, commonly referred to as PTSD, is a mental health disorder characterized by symptoms produced as the result of witnessing or going through a traumatic experience. This article offers an insight into post traumatic stress disorder symptoms in children.

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    Children and PTSD

    According to the National Center for PTSD, children may have post traumatic stress disorder if they have lived through or witnessed any type of trauma. The trauma usually involves a sense of danger, either to themselves or to a loved one. For example, children who are victims of sexual, emotional or physical abuse may experience PTSD, as well as children who have been witness to a fire, car accident, severe injury or death of a loved one or have seen violent acts in the area where they live. Post traumatic stress disorder symptoms in children vary by age, the severity of the event, the reactions of their family and loved ones to the event, and the proximity of the child to it.

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    Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Symptoms in Children

    According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, children may initially experience confused or agitated behavior immediately after the event occurs. School-aged children between the ages of 5 and 12 may have difficulty remembering the exact sequence of events, and often tend to put these in the wrong order when trying to remember what has occurred. They may also show signs of fear, anger, denial, sadness or terror. For example, they might wake up screaming in the middle of the night after a nightmare. In younger children, the event may be expressed through art and symbolic play. Children who have been witness to a violent act, such as a shooting or a car crash, may continually relive these events through play. The child may develop an obsessive interest in toy guns, or may re-enact the car crash by bashing together toy cars.

    Children of all ages can develop regressive behaviors after witnessing a traumatic event. For example, they may start acting younger than their age or become more clingy and dependent, even if they were beginning to develop more independent behaviors prior to the event. Worries such as a fear of dying, becoming sick or losing their loved ones are common. Previously calm or gentle children may suddenly have aggressive or angry outbursts or show extreme emotional reactions to otherwise normal events. They may also exhibit signs of hyper-vigilance, thinking that if they are constantly alert to their surroundings, they can anticipate or prevent the event from occurring again.

    Other post traumatic stress disorder symptoms in children include sleep disturbances such as nightmares or insomnia, unexplained illnesses, headaches or stomach aches or other body aches and pains.

    Children who are repeatedly exposed to traumatic events may develop a sort of emotional numbness to their environment, their friends and loved ones or previously-enjoyed activities. This is often as a form of self-protection.

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