Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
What is post-traumatic stress disorder?Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a debilitating condition that often follows a terrifying physical or emotional event - causing the person who survived the event to have persistent, frightening thoughts and memories, or flashbacks, of the ordeal. Sometimes effects from the traumatic events can be delayed for six months or longer, but when PTSD occurs soon after an event, the condition generally improves after three months. Some people with PTSD have long-term effects and often feel chronically, emotionally numb. PTSD in adolescents usually becomes a chronic disorder.
What causes post-traumatic stress disorder?The event(s) that triggers PTSD may be:
- something that occurred in the person's life.
- something that occurred in the life of someone close to him/her.
- something the person witnessed.
The following are some examples of catastrophic, life-threatening events that may cause PTSD if experienced or witnessed as a child or adolescent:
- serious accidents (such as car or train wrecks)
- natural disasters (such as floods or earthquakes)
- man-made tragedies (such as bombings)
- violent personal attacks (such as a mugging, rape, torture, being held captive, or kidnapping)
- physical abuse
- sexual assault
- sexual molestation
- emotional abuse
Who is affected by post-traumatic stress disorder?It is estimated that over 5 million children are exposed to some form of trauma each year in the US. According to the National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, of those children and adolescents who have experienced trauma, three percent to 15 percent of girls and one percent to 6 percent of boys could be diagnosed with PTSD.
What are the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder?The following are the most common symptoms of PTSD. However, each adolescent may experience signs differently.
Children and adolescents with PTSD experience extreme emotional, mental, and physical distress when exposed to situations that remind them of the traumatic event. Some may repeatedly relive the trauma in the form of nightmares and disturbing recollections during the day and may also experience any, or all, of the following:
- sleep disturbances
- feeling jittery or "on guard"
- being easily startled
- loss of interest in things they used to enjoy; detachment; general lack of responsiveness; feeling numb
- trouble feeling affectionate
- irritability, more aggressive than before, or even violent
- avoiding certain places or situations that bring back memories
- flashbacks or intrusive images (flashbacks can come in the form of images, sounds, smells, or feelings; a person usually believes that the traumatic event is happening all over again)
- losing touch with reality
- reenactment of an event for a period of seconds or hours or, very rarely, days
- problems in school; difficulty concentrating
- worry about dying at an early age
- regressive behaviors; acting younger than their age (i.e., thumb sucking, bedwetting)
- physical symptoms (i.e., headaches, stomach aches)
How is post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosed?Not every child or adolescent who experiences a trauma develops PTSD. PTSD is diagnosed only if symptoms persist for more than one month and are adversely affecting the adolescent's life and level of functioning. In those who do have PTSD, symptoms usually begin within three months following the trauma, but can also start months or years later.
PTSD can occur at any age, including childhood, and may be accompanied by:
- substance abuse
A child psychiatrist or other qualified mental health professional usually diagnoses PTSD in children or adolescents following a comprehensive psychiatric evaluation. Parents who note symptoms of PTSD in their child or teen can help by seeking an evaluation early. Early treatment can decrease future problems.
Treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder:Specific treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder will be determined by your adolescent's physician based on:
- your adolescent's age, overall health, and medical history
- extent of your adolescent's symptoms
- your adolescent's tolerance for specific medications or therapies
- expectations for the course of the disorder
- your opinion or preference
Prevention of post-traumatic stress disorder:Preventive measures to reduce the incidence or lessen the chance of traumatic experiences in adolescents include, but are not limited to, the following:
- Teach children that it is okay to say NO to someone who tries to touch his/her body or approach him/her in any way that makes him/her feel uncomfortable.
- Teach children that it is okay to tell an adult he/she trusts right away if someone makes him/her feel uncomfortable.
- Provide appropriate support and/or counseling for children and adolescents who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event.
- Encourage prevention programs within your community or local school system.
The information on this Web page is provided for educational purposes. You understand and agree that this information is not intended to be, and should not be used as, a substitute for medical treatment by a health care professional. You agree that Lucile Salter Packard Children's Hospital is not making a diagnosis of your condition or a recommendation about the course of treatment for your particular circumstances through the use of this Web page. You agree to be solely responsible for your use of this Web page and the information contained on this page. Lucile Salter Packard Children's Hospital, its officers, directors, employees, agents, and information providers shall not be liable for any damages you may suffer or cause through your use of this page even if advised of the possibility of such damages.