Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

What is it?

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a disorder that can develop after experiencing or witnessing an intense event. Trauma occurs when a stressful event overwhelms the child’s natural ability to cope. These events cause a “fight, flight, or freeze” response, resulting in changes in the body—such as an increase in heart rate—as well as changes in how the brain perceives and responds to the world. 

Examples of traumatic events include: 

  • Psychological, physical or sexual abuse
  • Neglect
  • Family or community violence
  • Serious accidents or life-threatening illness 
  • Natural disasters 
  •  Loss or separation from a loved one 
  • Forced displacement or war experiences 
  • Serious and untreated parental mental illness 
  • Discrimination
  • Persistent extreme poverty

What are the symptoms of PTSD?

Symptoms of PTSD in young children may include:

  • reliving or avoiding reminders of the traumatic event 
  • feeling alienated 
  • delays in reaching physical, language or other developmental milestones
  • hypervigilance
  • irritability or fussiness
  • being difficult to calm
  • frequent tantrums
  • clingy behaviour
  • difficulty paying attention

Learn about the symptoms and strategies for PTSD in children and youth in this video:

When is it time to seek professional help? 

It may be time to seek professional help if the traumatic stress reaction is so intense that it affects the child’s ability to function at school or home and if the symptoms become worse over time.

What can be done? 

Trauma-focused cognitive-behavioural therapy (TF-CBT) is an evidence-based treatment approach for children with PTSD. TF-CBT provides children, parents and caregivers with stress management skills before a direct discussion and processing traumatic experiences. It typically focuses on enhancing safety, psychoeducation and parenting skills, relaxation skills, affective regulation skills, and cognitive coping skills.

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is a psychotherapy treatment that uses eye movements to reduce negative physical and mental responses to traumatic memories. 

Play therapy helps children build coping skills, enhance their capacity for self-regulation, and promote positive self-esteem. Play therapists structure activities to target emotions, cognitions, and behaviours rooted in trauma.  

Medications such as antidepressant and anti-anxiety medications (e.g. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or SSRIs) can help some children deal with symptoms of PTSD as well as other brain-based disorders that contribute to the severity of PTSD symptoms such as depression, anxiety, and behavioural disorders.

What makes some children more vulnerable to PTSD? 

Younger children are more vulnerable to PTSD because they have not fully developed cognitive and emotional skills to process a traumatic event. Even infants and toddlers who are too young to remember or talk about the stressful event retain lasting memories of traumatic events that can affect their well-being into adulthood.

Where can I access support?

Talk to the child’s family doctor or pediatrician to help identify if the child’s behaviour is normal for their developmental stage. 

Talk to the child’s guardianship worker and share your behavioural observations. Explore what options are available for assessment so their diagnosis and treatment plan can be included in their Care Plan. The guardianship worker will help make appropriate referrals for specialized supports and services.

Get an assessment through your local Child and Youth Mental Health team. Your local CYMH office offers a range of free and voluntary mental health services and supports for children from 0-18 years of age and their families. These services include assessments, therapy and treatment, education and referrals to specialized programs and resources. There are 100 intake clinics for children, youth and their families at convenient locations throughout BC. 

You can also contact a private psychologist or counsellor through the BC Association of Clinical Counsellors or the BC Psychological Association. You can use website filters to search for a counsellor in your community that specializes in certain mental health challenges. 

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