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Kids, Trauma and PTSD

May 6, 2019

When it comes to kids and mental health, more attention is often paid to disorders like depression, anxiety and ADHD. The presence of childhood trauma disorders such as PTSD is often overlooked.

One reason is that a lot of people think of PTSD as being limited to soldiers of war, first-responders and survivors of serious accidents. Of course, there’s no doubt that people in those situations have a high risk of conditions influenced by trauma.  

More recent research, though, expands the idea of a traumatic experience to anything perceived by the individual as deeply distressing or disturbing. Children and teenagers can be particularly sensitive to such experiences. 

Depending upon their age, kids may struggle to verbalize their experience or their distress to caregivers or healthcare providers. Examples of traumatic experiences may include:

  • All forms of abuse (physical, sexual, emotional)
  • Neglect
  • Major medical illness such as cancer
  • Loss of a caregiver, sibling or close friend
  • Major accident/injury
  • Severe bullying  

Symptoms of childhood trauma 

Traumatic experiences can lead to strong emotions and physical symptoms that can persist long after the event. Acutely, children may experience emotions such as fear and helplessness, as well as physical symptoms including racing heartbeat, nausea or even incontinence. Young children may even reenact traumatic situations during play. 

Symptoms identified within the first month of a traumatic event are described as an acute stress reaction. After the first month, the disorder evolves into what we commonly know as post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Symptoms may evolve over time, looking more like symptoms of depression and anxiety. Children may become more irritable, have more fatigue, avoid situations they used to enjoy, lose appetite and have difficulty with their schoolwork. In severe cases, self-harm or suicidal ideation may also develop. 

Diagnosing a problem

With kids, assessing whether symptoms and behaviors are suggestive of a trauma-related disorder can be difficult. It’s not unusual for children to be diagnosed as depressed or anxious when symptoms actually fit within a formulation of trauma. If caregivers think a child or teen may need help dealing with trauma, it's important to find a mental health provider with expertise in childhood trauma.

Treatment for conditions related to childhood trauma

As with many mental health disorders, the most successful treatment for problems stemming from childhood trauma tends to be a combination of medication and therapy. Evidence-based medication may be recommended to help with mood, anxiety and sleep disturbance. Therapy—with a provider who’s experienced in helping children and teens deal with trauma—may help kids process and recover from their experiences. 

Such treatment can be very successful. And though children and teens may be sensitive to the initial effects of trauma, they can also be incredibly resilient and respond quickly to appropriate interventions. 

Finding help

To find a Psychiatric Associates provider who can help children and teens with trauma-related needs, use the Provider Quick Search on our Providers page. Check the boxes for Child/Adolescent and PTSD/Trauma. Or call us at 319-356-6352.

Rustin Licht, MD

Dr. Licht has received advanced training to treat psychiatric conditions in children, adolescents and adults. He works with patients on a wide range of mental health disorders. Areas of special interest include ADHD, Tourette's disorder, anxiety disorders (generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder) and depression.