What causes PTSD, who is at risk, what are the symptoms of traumatic stress, how to help your traumatized child
The American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress defines traumatic stress as, “the emotional, cognitive, behavioral, physiological experience of individuals who are exposed to, or who witness, events that overwhelm their coping and problem-solving abilities.”
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was first brought to public attention by war veterans and was called ‘shell shock’ or ‘battle fatigue’. However, PTSD can result from any traumatic event that is witnessed by a person, occurred in a person’s life, or happened to a friend or family member of that person. Such events include:
- physical abuse
- sexual abuse and molestation
- severe neglect
- ritual abuse
- family violence
- dating violence
- kidnapping or abduction
- serious accidents (e.g., car or train wrecks)
- natural disasters (e.g., floods or earthquakes)
- violent attacks (e.g., assault, rape, torture, bullying, being mugged)
- witnessing acts of violence or destruction (e.g., school violence, September 11th, war)
- betrayal, abandonment, infidelity, adultery
- abortion [The trauma from abortion has become politicized. However, any event that causes trauma can result in PTSD, and abortion is no exception.]
Who is at risk for developing PTSD?
The one million children who suffer abuse each year as well as those who have had other previous traumatic experiences are more likely than others to develop PTSD.
Other risk factors for developing PTSD include:
- type of trauma
- severity of the event
- duration of the event
- recurrence of the event
- the individual’s resilience and coping skills
- available support from family, friends, and community
What are the symptoms?
PTSD can occur at any age, including childhood. The disorder can be accompanied by depression, substance abuse, anxiety, and/or self-injury. Symptoms may be mild or severe ― people may become easily irritated or have violent outbursts. In general, the symptoms seem to be worse if the traumatic event was initiated by a person (i.e., assault) rather than a natural disaster (i.e., flood).
Not every traumatized person gets PTSD. Most people will experience some of the symptoms of PTSD in the days and weeks following the trauma, but the symptoms generally decrease over time and eventually disappear.
PTSD is diagnosed only if the any or all of the following symptoms last more than a month:
- Persistent frightening thoughts and memories of event
- Flashbacks (images, sounds, smells, or feelings)
- Avoiding people, places, situations that are associated with event
- Emotional numbness or detachment
- Inability to feel affectionate
- Sleep problems
- Being easily startled
- Loss of interest in things once enjoyed
- Aggressive or violent behavior
- Feelings of guilt
- Difficulty concentrating
- Constant worrying, especially about death
- Regressive behavior (i.e., acting younger than their age)
- Physical problems (e.g., headaches, stomach aches)
How can the traumatized person be helped?
Being emotionally detached after a trauma is not a healthy response. This emotional distancing stuffs the feelings inside, shuts out those who can give help and support, and puts the individual at greater risk for developing PTSD.
Family and friends can give support and comfort by listening to the person talk about his/her experiences and feelings very soon after the event. The National Association of School Psychologists suggests that children process their emotions and reactions to a trauma within 24-36 hours following a crisis to prevent PTSD. However, PTSD often does not show up until months or even years after the traumatic event, especially for those who have been abused.
Recovery is influenced by early detection, intervention, and mental health treatment (especially cognitive-behavioral therapy and group therapy). It’s up to the parents to get this help and support for their child.
Information provided by the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Institute on Drug Abuse.