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Children and PTSD

BMJ Group Medical Reference

Children who have lived through a frightening event or seen something upsetting can get post-traumatic stress disorder ( PTSD). If a child has PTSD, it can lead to problems later in life. If you think your child may have PTSD, don't wait to see if he or she will get better. Children with PTSD need treatment. If you are worried about your child, it's important to talk to your doctor or health visitor. [2]

Spotting PTSD in children

It can be hard to know how badly a child is affected by a frightening experience. [3] This is especially true of younger children who can't talk about their feelings.

If your child has been through a frightening event, or even just seen one, here are some of the things you should look out for.

Is your child: [2] [4]

  • More nervous, easily distracted, and not able to concentrate? [2]

  • Re-enacting the event when he or she plays? A child who has been in a traffic accident may make toy cars crash over and over again [4]

  • Having trouble sleeping? [2]

  • Having nightmares? For example, your child may have nightmares about monsters or being threatened. He or she may not have nightmares that are specifically about what happened [4]

  • Doing poorly at school? Did he or she start doing worse after going through a frightening event? [2]

  • Having more headaches or stomach aches than usual? [4]

  • Acting younger than he or she actually is? For example, has your child started wetting the bed at night though he or she hasn't done it for years?

If these symptoms last for longer than a month, your child may have PTSD.

Sometimes, parents and doctors don't make the link between a frightening event or the death of someone in the family and PTSD. This may mean that a child is wrongly diagnosed as having attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, depression, or another mental illness. [2] So if your child has been through a frightening event and starts having some of these symptoms, especially if he or she starts re-enacting the event, it's important to let your GP know.

What treatments will help my child?

If your child has PTSD, the most important thing you can do is give your love and support. [2]

Your GP will also offer treatment, depending on the symptoms your child is having. [2]

One review of studies (a systematic review) found 14 studies looking at different types of talking treatments for children with PTSD. It found that the research was best for a treatment called cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT for short). Studies showed that children had improvements in their PTSD symptoms, anxiety, and depression after this therapy. [5]

CBT is provided differently depending on the age of the child. CBT for older children is similar to CBT for adults. It tries to help children break the links between things that remind them of the event and the frightening feelings they are having, by having them talk about their experience and their reaction to it. To find out more, see Cognitive behaviour therapy to treat PTSD.

Last Updated: August 06, 2013
This information does not replace medical advice.  If you are concerned you might have a medical problem please ask your Boots pharmacy team in your local Boots store, or see your doctor.

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