Contributed by: Monique Heath, LCMHC, LCAS

Being in an accident or natural disaster, experiencing spiritual or religious abuse, a sudden or violent death in your life, witnessing bodily harm or death, being physically assaulted, exposure to school violence, being neglected in the home, witnessing domestic abuse or violence, being sexually abused, witnessing community violence, and experiencing verbal or emotional abuse… all of these are examples of traumatic experience. This term is common inside and outside the therapy world and may seem to be overused.  It is said that a child will experience trauma throughout their lifetime. Children have unlimited experiences that can be considered traumatic (e.g., end of a relationship) and it can be confusing to understand and define. To add to the confusion is the stress of witnessing your child’s reactions following a traumatic experience that can led to PTSD.  Trauma is never easy to talk about, but it is important to learn about. Keep reading to learn about trauma, PTSD, and how you can help your child.

What is Trauma?

The key to understanding and defining trauma is emphasis on how you experience the event rather than what happened to you. The best definition of trauma is any experience that overwhelms your thoughts, emotions or body.  It is important to remember that trauma is a very personal experience. How you remember an event can be very different from how someone else experienced the very same thing.  You can see this when two children are raised in the same home, with the same parents and siblings and have very different experiences of what it was like growing up in the same family. Two people can experience the same event but have two different reactions. A good example of this, when children are raised in the same household with the same parents, but each child’s experience is different.

When you experience something that overwhelms you it can rewire your brain and body. One of the biggest things trauma affects is your nervous system. A traumatic situation can change how your brain interprets information. This can affect your memory, moods, emotions, and your feelings of safety and security. It changes the way you think, feel, and experience daily life activities. After you experience trauma, your body begins to live on high alert. You become very sensitive to your surroundings. Things that might seem insignificant to other people can trigger strong feelings for you. Many people suffer from trauma without realizing it and this way of life becomes your new normal. Left untreated it is easy for trauma to lead to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

What is PTSD?

When most people hear the term PTSD, they immediately think military. No more, the days the diagnosis being only for veterans. Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a disorder resulting from experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event that causes intense fear, helplessness, or horror. For a diagnosis of PTSD symptoms must last more than a month and be severe enough to interfere with daily functioning. The symptoms can last for months or even years after the event. The severity of symptoms depends greatly on support from family members, the child’s proximity to the event, and how soon treatment for PTSD is sought. Symptoms of PTSD will typically develop within the first three months following the traumatic event. The symptoms may not surface for months or years later. The RAAN acronym may help you remember symptoms of PTSD.

  • Reliving the trauma – those with PTSD may re-live the traumatic event. Nightmares, flashbacks, and/or difficult and disturbing mental images are commo
  • Avoidance – those with PTSD tend to avoid things that are reminders of the traumatic event. This might mean avoidance of people, places, activities, or certain objects. They may also avoid talking about the trauma.
  • Anxiety – as a result of the trauma, people developing PTSD often have higher levels of stress hormones in the body. These stress hormones can then cause those with PTSD to experience hyper-vigilance. This includes feeling jumpy, on edge, easily startled, or irritable. Anxiety can also contribute to difficulties with concentration and sleep.
  • Numbness – feeling detached, dissociated, and/or emotional numb is typical. The individual experiencing emotional numbness may not be actively trying to numb out. This is often the brains attempt to “protect” the individual.

Other common symptoms include:

  • Panic Attacks
  • Confusion and inability to make decisions
  • Finding it hard to enjoy activities that were once pleasurable
  • Aggressive behavior
  • Regression to past childlike behaviors (eg. bedwetting or sucking thumbs)
  • Complaints of headaches and stomach aches
  • Inability to trust others
  • Low self esteem 

 Overtime, traumatic stress can impact every area of your child’s life and impact your child’s ability to grow mature and learn. Dealing with PTSD can be a downward spiral of thoughts, emotions and actions. This can be difficult to get out of without proper help. and guidance. Untreated PTSD may result in long term:

  • Inability to form relationships with peers
  • Resisting challenges due to fear
  • Behavioral problems
  • Extreme aggression
  • Anxiety Disorders (eg. Generalized Anxiety Disorder, OCD, etc.)
  • Depression
  • Borderline Personality Disorder
  • Self-harm and/or Suicidal thoughts and behaviors

Overcoming PTSD requires evidence-based practices.  The proper treatment can help your child develop the coping skills necessary to resume their daily lives. The most effective PTSD treatment approaches include the following:

  • Trauma-focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
  • Cognitive Processing Therapy
  • and Reprocessing (EMDR)
  • Somatic or body-based therapy
  • Medication is sometimes used in conjunction with therapy to assist with PTSD symptoms.

To learn more about the above treatment approaches and diagnosis of PTSD, please consult with a mental health professional.   

How can you help your child?

Watching your child struggle with symptoms of PTSD can be stressful and challenging. The four E’s are things you can do to support your child’s healing.

Encourage– Encourage your child to talk, by providing ongoing opportunities to talk about the traumatic experience. Keep in mind they may not want to talk but simply spending one-on-one time together can help your child feel safe and encouraged.

Eager– Pause eagerness, talking about a traumatic event is difficult for anyone and talking may take time. So be patience and allow your child to open up.

Expose-Expose honesty, openness, and transparency. Don’t pretend like everything is okay. Be honest with your child. Of course, information will be age appropriate but it very important to be honest and open.

Educate-Educate yourself about trauma and PTSD so you can educate your child about trauma and PTSD. The more you understand, the better you can assist your child with what they need. Knowing the facts about trauma and PTSD can help your child understand their experience and validate their experience.

Fun Facts: Did you know?

Teens are at high risk of PTSD. According to the Substance abuse and mental health services administration, more than two thirds of adolescents ages 17 and under report having experienced a traumatic event. American Psychological Association reports that “nearly all children and adolescents express some kind of distress or behavioral change in acute phase of recovery from a traumatic event”. If not treated this can lead to PTSD.

June is National PTSD Awareness Month

June 27 is PTSD Awareness Day

Sources: American Psychological Association, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration