Updated: Aug 26, 2021
A quick search on google shows me a limited amount of information on dealing with PTSD in children. Much of the knowledge available on PTSD is primarily centred around adults. The things we have learnt from the research involving adults may not necessarily apply to young children.
When a child experiences a traumatic event, what they share is an overwhelming threat to their safety. A child perceives a situation in which they are powerless to overcome it. These situations can present themselves as community violence, bullying, natural disasters, medical trauma, sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse, refugee trauma, terrorism, violence and grief. It may seem counterintuitive, but even infants are affected by and can remember events that threaten their sense of safety. They develop PTSD due to this sense of powerlessness from sexual abuse, witnessing violence, physical neglect, emotional abuse, parental separation and even medical interventions.
Stress in children manifests differently than it does in adults. For example, a child that has gone through a traumatic experience will have feelings of terror and helplessness where physically they experience their heart rate increase. They may vomit, lose control of their bowels and bladder. And as an adult, we may mistake these trauma responses as the child being physically unwell when it is not the case. Children do not have the vocabulary to link their trauma with the response their experiencing. Adults often struggle to identify their trauma responses, so to expect anyone under the age of 18 years to do so is also very unfair.
Studies have shown that traumatic experiences change the brain and the nervous system. As it goes untreated, they manifest physically as eating disorders, anger issues, substance abuse, and developing long-term health problems such as diabetes and other autoimmune diseases. Adults who experienced any form of trauma in their childhood display behaviours that cause them to sabotage their relationships, have difficulties expressing their emotions, hold down a job, and commit crimes and abuse drugs in extreme cases.
As a parent, it's important to remember that just because you are visually aware of your child, it does not mean that you are both living the same experience. We often hear parents say things like, "They were just a baby when it happened, they won't remember" or "I'm trying not to talk about it, so they forget it ever happened". While this may seem well-intentioned by you, the research suggests otherwise as children can remember events that happen to them and often attempt to resolve the trauma through play and talk.
As parents, it's often necessary to remember that significant changes within the family, an injury of any kind, a medical procedure or loss are valid traumas and can all cause traumatic stress. If your child has experienced a traumatic event, we encourage you to speak with a play therapist so that your child can begin their journey towards healing.