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Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

As stated earlier, some children and adolescents will have prolonged problems after a traumatic event. These potentially chronic conditions include depression and prolonged grief. Another serious and potentially long-lasting problem is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This condition is diagnosed when the following symptoms have been present for longer than one month:

  • Re-experiencing the event through play or in trauma-specific nightmares or flashbacks, or distress over events that resemble or symbolize the trauma.
  • Routine avoidance of reminders of the event or a general lack of responsiveness (e.g., diminished interests or a sense of having a foreshortened future).
  • Increased sleep disturbances, irritability, poor concentration, startle reaction and regression.
Rates of PTSD identified in child and adult survivors of violence and disasters vary widely. For example, estimates range from 2% after a natural disaster (tornado), 28% after an episode of terrorism (mass shooting), and 29% after a plane crash. The disorder may arise weeks or months after the traumatic event. PTSD may resolve without treatment, but some form of therapy by a mental health professional is often required in order for healing to occur. Fortunately, it is more common for a traumatized child or adolescent to have some of the symptoms of PTSD than to develop the full-blown disorder. People differ in their vulnerability to PTSD, and the source of this difference is not known in its entirety.

Research has shown that PTSD clearly alters a number of fundamental brain mechanisms. Because of this, abnormalities have been detected in brain chemicals that affect coping behavior, learning, and memory among people with the disorder. Recent brain imaging studies have detected altered metabolism and blood flow as well as anatomical changes in people with PTSD. Further information on PTSD and research concerning it may be found in the NIMH fact sheet, "Facts About Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder," which is posted on the NIMH Web site (http://www.nimh.nih.gov) or available by mail from the address noted on the accompanying resources list.


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Treatment of PTSD

People with PTSD are treated with specialized forms of psychotherapy and sometimes with medications or a combination of the two. One of the forms of psychotherapy shown to be effective is cognitive-behavioral therapy, or CBT. In CBT, the patient is taught methods of overcoming anxiety or depression and modifying undesirable behaviors such as avoidance. The therapist helps the patient examine and re-evaluate beliefs that are interfering with healing, such as the belief that the traumatic event will happen again. Children who undergo CBT are taught to avoid "catastrophizing."

For example, they are reassured that dark clouds do not necessarily mean another hurricane, that the fact that someone is angry doesn't necessarily mean that another shooting is imminent, etc. Play therapy and art therapy also can help younger children to remember the traumatic event safely and express their feelings about it. Other forms of psychotherapy that have been found to help persons with PTSD include group and exposure therapy. A reasonable period of time for treatment of PTSD is 6 to 12 weeks with occasional follow-up sessions, but treatment may be longer depending on a patient's particular circumstances. Research has shown that support from family and friends can be an important part of recovery and that involving people in group discussion very soon after a catastrophic event may reduce some of the symptoms of PTSD.

There has been a good deal of research on the use of medications for adults with PTSD, including research on the formation of emotionally charged memories and medications that may help to block the development of symptoms. Medications appear to be useful in reducing overwhelming symptoms of arousal (such as sleep disturbances and an exaggerated startle reflex), intrusive thoughts, and avoidance; reducing accompanying conditions such as depression and panic; and improving impulse control and related behavioral problems. Research is just beginning on the use of medications to treat PTSD in children and adolescents. There is preliminary evidence that psychotherapy focused on trauma and grief, in combination with selected medications, can be effective in alleviating PTSD symptoms and accompanying depression. More medication treatment research is needed to increase our knowledge of how best to treat children who have PTSD.

A mental health professional with special expertise in the area of child and adolescent trauma is the best person to help a youngster with PTSD. Organizations on the accompanying resource list may help you to find such a specialist in your geographical are.

next: Thinking About Violence in Our Schools

APA Reference
Writer, H. (2008, December 22). Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2019, July 16 from https://www.healthyplace.com/parenting/nimh/post-traumatic-stress-disorder

Last Updated: July 4, 2016

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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