Trigger Warning:Please be advised that the content in this article describes childhood traumatic events, specific traumas, abuse, assault, and other potentially triggering topics.
We might only realize the impact of our upbringing and childhood once we are well past it. As adults, we may see that how we were raised, our experiences, and what we lived through can shape who we are now.
It is often believed that a happy, balanced childhood with loving parents equals balanced, healthy adults. On the other hand, many psychologists believe that children with absentee, critical, or abusive parents may grow up with mental health concerns.
We may all experience some form of non-traumatic stress during our childhood. Additionally, the same stressful events may be traumatic for one child and not traumatic for another. For example, one individual may find it simple to grieve their parent’s divorce, whereas another person may struggle with constant imagery, thoughts, or nightmares about their experience.
Childhood trauma may sometimes feel so overwhelming for a child that they develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Children may be particularly susceptible to experiencing PTSD from the divorce of their parents.
When a child develops PTSD, they may feel unable to move on from the event(s) and return to feeling healthy, and calm. Instead, their behavior may shift, and they might replay the event(s) in their mind.
Trauma may depend on a child’s personality, environment, and upbringing. Although what is “traumatic” can vary from child to child, a few experiences may cause a child to develop PTSD.
Being a victim of or witnessing violence, emotional abuse, or domestic abuse
Being physically abused
Being the victim of human trafficking or kidnapping
Being impacted by a war
Being impacted by a natural disaster or witnessing one
Becoming displaced because of a crisis
Becoming a refugee or immigrant at a young age
Living in a neighborhood where violence, drugs, and crimes are present
Living through a severe injury or illness (such as cancer)
Witnessing the death of a loved one through violent or unexpected means
Experiencing the death of a primary caregiver or parent
Being neglected or abandoned
Being in the foster care system, institutionalized, or in group homes
Often, these causes can be linked. For example, studies show that children who have experienced or witnessed abuse may be more likely to be abused as adults.
If a child grows up in an unsafe environment, they may be exposed to multiple types of traumas throughout their life, such as dangerous substances, repeated abuse, or other traumatic occurrences.
Repeatedly being exposed to or going through any of these events and having survivor’s guilt may also contribute to the development of PTSD.
Recognizing PTSD in children may be difficult. For example, if a child grows up in an unsafe or hostile environment, the caregivers may not seek care for the child’s symptoms or mental health issues. If the childhood trauma is inflicted upon the child by someone in their family, it may remain unreported.
Additionally, some of the signs and symptoms of PTSD may be attributed to the hormonal changes of a growing child. In some cases, caregivers or professionals may not believe a child who reports traumatic events. Intervention can be essential in these cases. Learning the symptoms of PTSD and taking them seriously may be beneficial if you care for or have children.
Adults and children may experience the same type of symptoms of PTSD. However, children may be more focused on their caregivers to provide support and understanding, as they may not have words for what is going on. Children often express themselves through play for this reason. Pay attention to what kind of games they play, what they roleplay with dolls, or the things they draw.
Some children may feel afraid to speak up about their trauma if it is inflicted on them by someone they trust. Whether it’s an authority figure, teacher, or parent, they may fear repercussions by speaking out.
Signs of childhood trauma to keep an eye out for may include the following:
Memories and flashbacks of the traumatic event that keep coming back even if the child wants to forget about it
Having frequent nightmares
Crying or screaming for no “discernible” reason
Feeling nervous and “on edge,” especially when faced with something that reminds them of the trauma. For example, a child may become anxious or run away when a particular person enters a room
Acting out or drawing out what happened to them
Having difficulty remembering details of the trauma
Avoiding any places, people, or things that remind them of trauma
Losing interest in activities or interests that used to give them pleasure or joy
Becoming detached or isolated from the people around them
Trouble concentrating at school or home
Self-blame and guilt for what happened
Displaying aggression or irritability
Behaving in an impulsive manner
Problems with sleeping
Expressing a general sense of fear or anxiety
Conduct concerns, such as illegal behavior, substance use, or risk-taking
These symptoms may last for years and begin as soon as a few weeks after the traumatic event or can take several months or years to first appear. Many children with PTSD may not know they have PTSD until they are adults.
Some children experience what is referred to as acute stress disorder. The condition often refers to a sudden stress response with symptoms lasting from a few days to a month. It may be in response to a stressful or traumatic event.
Not every child who has gone through a childhood trauma will go on to develop PTSD. Things like mental illness in the family, the type of trauma inflicted, the child’s personality, their support system, and the environment they grew up in may all play a role and affect whether someone will develop PTSD.
Because PTSD symptoms may come and go, it might feel easy for a parent to miss the signs. However, at the first signs of PTSD symptoms, it can be beneficial to consult a doctor and mental health practitioner and have your child evaluated.
A PTSD diagnosis will often be made based on the symptoms exhibited by the child. The doctor may also conduct a few physical and medical evaluations to rule out other illnesses or abuse.
A diagnosis for PTSD will be made based on the criteria outlined in the DSM-5. Symptoms from four criteria will need to be met for children under six years of age.
They are as follows:
Criteria A: Exposure to a traumatic event either directly (it happened to the child) or indirectly (they witnessed it)
Criteria B: The presence of at least one intrusive symptom, like having flashbacks or nightmares of the event
Criteria C: Displaying symptoms of withdrawal and avoidance of places, people, occurrences, or activities
Criteria D: Displaying changes in behavior, such as aggression or irritability
If a child has one or more symptoms in each of the four categories and the symptoms have lasted for at least a month, the doctor may diagnose PTSD. For a PTSD diagnosis, a doctor may check to ensure there are no other factors at play (like depression, an anxiety disorder, or physical illness)
A diagnosis of PTSD may feel scary or upsetting. However, because PTSD is a treatable illness, a diagnosis may be the first step toward getting support for your child or a child you care for.
Children with PTSD often go through the same kind of treatment as teens or adults who have PTSD: psychotherapy and medication.
Psychotherapy may help the child deal with the trauma, move on from it, and go on to lead a healthy, happy life. Depending on what kind of trauma the child endured and what they are going through, therapists may provide support, such as psychologists, clinical social workers, counselors, trauma counselors, psychiatrists, or bereavement specialists.
A mental health therapist may use various techniques to treat PTSD. The most popular and effective methods used are as follows.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is often used to treat various mental health conditions and concerns, including PTSD. A therapist specializing in trauma therapy and children may work with the survivor to understand the trauma and how it affected them through talk therapy, behavioral coping skills, and more.
CBT may help the trauma survivor understand that they were not to blame for their trauma(s). The process could also encourage them to let go of any irrational thoughts surrounding the traumatic event. Finally, the therapist may provide survivors with any necessary tools to cope with and manage their symptoms.
Through play therapy, a therapist may encourage survivors to communicate what they have gone through by using a creative approach, such as playing games, creating art, roleplaying, or playing with sensory toys.
Young children or children who do not yet possess the skills to communicate effectively may be able to communicate through creative means and imagination. Through play therapy, the therapist may help the child process the trauma.
EMDR is a form of trauma-focused therapy which is gaining popularity in the mental health field. Studies show that it is a safe and effective treatment for PTSD.
EMDR may involve combining CBT with eye movement exercises (guided by the therapist) where the survivor talks about what they remember from their trauma(s). The therapist can work with them to address the emotions they experienced during and after the event. It may allow memories to reappear, as it targets both sides of the brain while processing the trauma(s).
Depending on the situation and the type of trauma endured by the child, a professional may recommend support groups, group therapy, family counseling, or another treatment method to help a child understand and cope with what’s happening.
In some cases, a mental health professional may also prescribe medication to treat some of the symptoms associated with PTSD, such as anxiety or depression. Managing these symptoms may enable a child to resume normal activities more efficiently. For many, medication is only a temporary solution.
Studies show that many treatments listed for support in adults or adolescents with PTSD are also effective in treating children. Without treatment, the symptoms of PTSD may only worsen or create concerns for the child when they are an adult.
Many adults who have experienced childhood trauma go on to experience physical health issues. With evidence showing a mind-body connection, somatic therapy or trauma therapy may effectively heal PTSD at any point in life.
A child with a strong support system may feel safer and more open to treatment. You may consider the following tips.
Make efforts to validate the child’s PTSD symptoms or experiences. Don’t tell them that they’re “bad,” “dirty,” or “dramatic.” Validate their emotions by telling them their experience was traumatic, they didn’t deserve it, and you’re here to support them and help keep them safe.
Encourage the child to talk about their emotions or experiences when ready. Let them know they have a safe place to confide in if they want to discuss it. If they aren’t prepared, do not force them to open up. Studies show that trauma healing can be done without remembering traumatic events.
Consider boosting a child’s self-esteem and self-confidence by allowing them to participate in activities they are good at, considering their opinions, and allowing them to make decisions. Model healthy self-care by practicing it in your own life.
Try not to be critical of your child’s behaviors. They may be struggling to deal with difficult emotions. It may take time for a child’s PTSD treatment to feel adequate. Remaining supportive and gentle may allow your child to feel safe in relationships, strengthening a secure attachment style.
Suppose you are a parent, guardian, teacher, or loved one of a child who has PTSD. In that case, you may support their treatment by providing unconditional love and support and recognizing they may be passing through a difficult time that could impact their behavior and emotions.
If you are struggling or have questions about supporting the child, consider speaking to a doctor or a therapist. Many parents or childcare workers find themselves too busy to attend an in-person therapy session. If you relate, support is available online.
Studies show that online cognitive-behavioral therapy for adults is effective at treating a variety of concerns. In one study, 71% of participants felt that online treatment was more effective than traditional counseling.
If you’re ready to reach out, consider contacting a counselor on an online platform such as BetterHelp. Many therapists with child psychology experience may be able to support you and your family.
Childhood trauma may feel distressing or complex for all involved. If you care for or love a child who has experienced trauma or suspect that they have, consider reaching out for support. A counselor can be an effective treatment option.