Causes and Effects of PTSD in Children and Teenagers

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Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a serious anxiety disorder brought on by a disturbing event. PTSD can affect both adults and children. The United States Department of Veterans Affairs’ National Center for PTSD points out that 14 to 43 percent of boys and 15 to 43 percent of girls experience a type of trauma. Of those children, 1 to 6 percent of boys and 3 to 15 percent of girls are diagnosed with PTSD. Questionnaires, such as the Early Trauma Inventory, gauge the different types of trauma a child experiences and how it affected him or her. The effects of this anxiety can cause serious problems in patients.

Causes of PTSD in Children

Certain events can have a psychological impact on children and teenagers. One type of trauma that can cause PTSD in children is abuse. The United States Department of Veterans Affairs’ National Center for PTSD notes that 3.85 million children are involved in abusive situations each year. Of those abuse cases, 65 percent are neglect, 18 percent are physical abuse, 10 percent are sexual abuse, and 7 percent are psychological abuse. Each type of abuse has lasting effects on the survivors.

Arthur Schoenstadt, MD, author of the eMedTV article “PTSD in Children,” points out that other situations can cause PTSD among children and adolescents. For example, being exposed to natural disasters can cause PTSD. Children involved or exposed to violent crime, motor vehicle accidents and war can develop the anxiety disorder. Other situations that may result in PTSD include severe burns and peer suicide.

Effects of PTSD in Children

When children have PTSD, they can have emotional and behavioral problems. Patients can develop anxiety and uncontrolled fear. That anxiety may be directed at the source of the PTSD. For example, if a violent incident involving a gun caused the PTSD, the child may become anxious at the sound of a gunshot or when seeing a gun. Some children and teenagers develop depression, in which they feel hopeless or helpless. Patients may feel isolated. They may blame themselves for the traumatic event. Their self-esteem can be affected and they can have problems trusting others. Other children and teenagers may become aggressive and angry after the trauma.

Schoenstadt notes that behavioral problems can occur with PTSD, such as self-destructive behavior. Parents may notice sexually inappropriate behaviors in some children, especially if the children are victims of sexual abuse. Some children and teenagers with PTSD may turn to substance abuse to deal with their emotional issues, though the drugs and alcohol only make the symptoms worse. Substance abuse can lead to other problems, such as legal trouble and poor health.

The symptoms of PTSD can differ in each age group. The United States Department of Veterans Affairs’ National Center for PTSD explains that in school-aged children, they may repeat the traumatic experience in play, such as acting out a shootout. With teenagers, they can become more impulsive or aggressive as a result of PTSD.


United States Department of Veterans Affairs’ National Center for PTSD: PTSD in Children and Teens

eMedTV: PTSD in Children

J. Douglas Bremner: Early Trauma Inventory Self-Report Short Form