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Jun.30.2020View related content
 Helping Your Child Manage Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Helping Your Child Manage Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health disorder that may develop after seeing or experiencing an upsetting event (trauma). Types of trauma that can lead to PTSD include physical injury, any kind of abuse, violence, or a natural disaster.
PTSD can occur shortly after a traumatic event or may happen weeks later. It can affect how a child thinks and feels for months or years. There are ways to recognize the symptoms and support your child who is living with PTSD.

How to recognize PTSD in your child

In general, signs of PTSD include stress, anxiety, and distressing memories. Symptoms of PTSD also vary by age.
If your child is younger than 5 years old, your child may:
  • Be fussy, clingy, or irritable.
  • Have frequent temper tantrums.
  • Repeat traumatic events frequently through play.
If your child is age 6 to 12, your child may:
  • Have trouble at school.
  • Be frequently sad and withdrawn.
  • Have frequent physical complaints, like headaches or stomachaches.
  • Have nightmares.
  • Frequently talk about scary thoughts.
  • Go back to early behaviors (regress) like bed-wetting or thumb-sucking.
If your child is age 13 to 18, your child may:
  • Talk about the traumatic event frequently.
  • Be disobedient and disruptive.
  • Get into trouble at school or outside school.
  • Use drugs or alcohol.

How to support your child

Work with your child's health care provider and mental health care provider to learn what behaviors are typical and how to cope with them. It can be hard not to take your child's PTSD behaviors personally. Try to remember that your child is not behaving this way on purpose to upset you. It may help to keep these suggestions in mind:
  • Do not react with anger. Your child cannot change his or her reactions without working on them.
  • Do not punish or scold your child for PTSD behaviors. Instead, be patient. This takes time and understanding.
Help your child feel safe at home by:
  • Knowing your child's PTSD triggers as a way to avoid them.
  • Never using physical punishment.
  • Being willing to listen whenever your child talks about feelings or memories of trauma. Do not force your child to talk about these feelings or memories.
  • Trying not to let your child see disturbing images in the media.
  • Using a nightlight in your child's bedroom if your child has trouble sleeping.
  • Helping your child practice self-soothing skills, such as breathing slowly, holding a favorite stuffed animal, or snuggling with you.
Help your child feel supported by:
  • Having a regular schedule with consistent mealtimes, bedtimes, and playtimes.
  • Helping your child arrive on time to school and other activities.
  • Letting your child choose meals or activities to help him or her feel a sense of control. This can help children who often feel helpless.
  • Allowing your child to be sad or cry. Do not criticize your child for these emotions.
  • Asking your child about his or her feelings and letting your child talk without judging the feelings as good or bad.
  • Encouraging your child to express emotions and ideas through drawing or writing.
  • Checking in regularly with your child's teachers or other caregivers about how your child is doing.
  • Teaching your child activities to manage stress, like listening to music or practicing deep breathing.

Follow these instructions at home:

Eating and drinking

  • Give your child foods that are high in fiber, such as beans, whole grains, and fresh fruits and vegetables.
  • Limit foods that are high in fat and processed sugars, such as fried or sweet foods.

Activity

  • Encourage your child to do his or her normal activities as told by your child's health care provider.
  • Ask your child's health care provider to suggest some appropriate activities for your child.
  • Encourage your child to be physically active every day.

General instructions

  • Do not get angry with your child for behavior changes caused by PTSD.
  • Give over-the-counter and prescription medicines only as told by your child's health care provider.
  • Make sure your child gets enough sleep.
  • Keep all follow-up visits as told by your health care provider. This is important.

Where to find more information

Go to these websites to find more information about PTSD, coping with trauma, and how to manage stress:

Contact a health care provider if:

  • Your child's symptoms are more intense or more frequent.
  • Your child is having trouble at school or outside the home.
  • Your child has new or worsening symptoms.
  • Your child is using drugs or alcohol.
  • You are having trouble supporting your child at home.

Get help right away if:

  • Your child expresses thoughts about harming himself or herself or others.
  • Your child talks about death or suicide.
  • Your child is:
    • Acting suspicious and angry.
    • Having repeated flashbacks.
  • You and your child are having an increasing number of fights.
  • Your child says that he or she is very depressed or anxious.
If you ever feel like your child may hurt himself or herself or others, or shares thoughts about taking his or her own life, get help right away. You can go to your nearest emergency department or call:
  • Your local emergency services (911 in the U.S.).
  • A suicide crisis helpline, such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. This is open 24 hours a day.

Summary

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health disorder that children may develop after seeing or experiencing an upsetting event (trauma).
  • PTSD can occur shortly after a traumatic event or may happen weeks later. It can affect how a child thinks and feels for months or years.
  • Work with your child's health care provider and mental health care provider to learn what behaviors are typical and how to cope with them.
  • It is important to help children with PTSD feel safe and supported.
  • Check in regularly with your child's health care providers, teachers, and other caregivers about how your child is doing.

This information is not intended to replace advice given to you by your health care provider. Make sure you discuss any questions you have with your health care provider.