Someone who is the victim of (or threatened by) violence, injury, or harm can develop a mental health problem called postraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD can happen in the first few weeks after an event, or even years later.
People with PTSD often re-experience their trauma in the form of "flashbacks," memories, nightmares, or scary thoughts, especially when they're exposed to events or objects that remind them of the trauma.
Psychologists or other counselors can help people with PTSD deal with hurtful thoughts and bad feelings and get back to a normal life.
PTSD is often associated with soldiers and others on the front lines of war, but anyone — even kids — can develop the condition after a traumatic event.
Traumas that might bring on PTSD include the unexpected or violent death of a family member or close friend, and serious harm or threat of death or injury to oneself or a loved one. Situations that can cause such trauma include:
In some cases, PTSD can happen after repeated exposure to these events. Survivor guilt (feelings of guilt for having survived an event in which friends or family members died) also might contribute to PTSD.
Not everyone who goes through a traumatic event will get PTSD. The chances of developing it and how severe it is vary based on things like personality, history of mental health issues, social support, family history, childhood experiences, current stress levels, and the nature of the traumatic event.
Studies show that people with PTSD often have atypical levels of key hormones involved in the stress response. For instance, research has shown that they have lower-than-normal cortisol levels and higher-than-normal epinephrine and norepinephrine levels — all of which play a big role in the body's "fight-or-flight" reaction to sudden stress. (It's known as "fight or flight" because that's exactly what the body is preparing itself to do — to either fight off the danger or run from it.)
Intrusive thoughts or memories of the event
Avoidance of any reminders of the event
Negative thinking or mood since the event happened
Persistent feelings of anxiety or physical reactions
Symptoms usually develop within the first month after the trauma, but they may not show up until months or even years have passed. These symptoms often continue for years after the trauma or, in some cases, may ease and return later in life if another event triggers memories of the trauma. (In fact, anniversaries of the event can often cause a flood of emotions and bad memories.)
PTSD also can come on as a sudden, short-term response (called acute stress disorder) to an event and can last many days or up to one month.
People with PTSD may not seek professional help because they think it's understandable to feel frightened after going through a traumatic event. Sometimes, people may not recognize the link between their symptoms and the trauma they experienced.
Teachers, doctors, school counselors, friends, and other family members who know a child or teen well can play an important role in recognizing PTSD symptoms.
Many people recover from a traumatic event after a period of adjustment. However, if your child or teen has experienced a traumatic event and has symptoms of PTSD for more than a month, get help from an expert.
Therapy can help address symptoms of avoidance, intrusive and negative thoughts, and a depressed or negative mood. A therapist will work with your family to help you and your child or teen adjust to what happened and get back to living life.
Mental health professionals who can help include:
Cognitive-behavioral therapy is very effective for people who develop PTSD. This type of therapy teaches ways to replace negative, unhelpful thoughts and feelings with more positive thinking. Behavioral strategies can be used at a child's own pace to help desensitize the child to the traumatic parts of what happened so he or she doesn't feel so afraid of them.
In some cases, medicine might be used to treat serious symptoms of depression and anxiety. This can help those with PTSD cope with school and other daily activities while being treated. Medicine often is used only until someone feels better, then therapy can help get the person back on track.
Finally, group therapy or support groups are often helpful because they let kids and teens know that they're not alone. Groups also provide a safe atmosphere in which to share feelings. Ask your child's therapist for specific referrals or suggestions for a group.
First and foremost, your child needs your support and understanding. Sometimes other family members like parents and siblings will need support, too. While family and friends can play a key role in helping someone recover, it's usually necessary to seek help from a trained therapist.
Here are some other things parents can do to support kids with PTSD:
Also, take care of yourself. Helping your child or teen cope with PTSD can be very challenging and may require a lot of patience and support. Time does heal, and getting good support for your family can help everyone move forward.
Reviewed by: Michelle New, PhD
Date reviewed: October 2014
|National Mental Health Association (NMHA) NMHA works to improve the mental health of all Americans through advocacy, education, research, and service.|
|American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) AACAP offers up-to-date information on child and adolescent development and issues.|
|National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) NIMH offers information about the symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment of mental illnesses, and supports research to help those with mental illness.|
|Five Steps for Fighting Stress Everybody gets stressed from time to time. This article for kids has some tips for you to try the next time you're stressed.|
|Anxiety Disorders Anxiety is a natural part of life, and most of us experience it from time to time. But for some people, anxiety can be extreme.|
|Date Rape About half of people who have been raped know the person who attacked them. This article explains what date rape is, how to protect yourself, and what to do if you've been raped.|
|About Stressful Situations How well we get through a stressful situation depends a lot on us. It's how we deal with that makes all the difference. Here are some ways to understand and manage stress.|
|Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder All kids have worries and doubts. But some have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) in which their worries compel them to behave in certain ways over and over again.|
|Being Afraid Have you ever been afraid? Everyone gets scared sometimes. Find out more about fear in this article for kids.|
|Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder Someone might say you're obsessed with soccer or something else that you really like, but when someone has a true obsession, it isn't any fun. Find out more about obsessive-compulsive disorder in this article for kids.|
|About Serious Stress Serious stress can come from dealing with a personal crisis, a disaster, a health crisis, or a mental health condition that feels out of control. Here's what to do when stress gets really serious.|
|Phobias A phobia is strong fear of something. Find out more in this article for kids.|
|5 Ways to Deal With Anxiety We all get worried or nervous about things. Here are 5 ways to control anxiety.|
|Taking Your Child to a Therapist Kids, like adults, can often benefit from therapy – but there are many important things to consider as you look for the right therapist.|
|Depression Everyone is sad once in a while. But depression is a sadness that goes on too long and hurts too much. Find out more in this article for kids.|
|Depression Depression is very common. For more information about depression and feeling better, check out this article.|
|5 Ways to Cope When a Loved One Dies We all face grief at some point. Here are 5 ideas that might help you cope when someone you love has died.|
|Helping Kids Cope With Stress Stress from things like school and social situations can feel overwhelming for kids. But by teaching healthy coping strategies, you'll prepare your kids to manage stress.|
|Date Rape Half of all people who are raped know their attacker. Increase your child's awareness of date rape and teach him or her how to stay safe.|
|Anxiety, Fears, and Phobias Experiencing and dealing with anxieties can prepare young people to handle the unsettling experiences and challenging situations of life.|
|Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Sometimes after experiencing a traumatic event, a person has a strong and lingering reaction known as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Getting treatment and support can make all the difference.|
|Getting Help for Intense Grief Going through grief and loss is never easy. But in some situations, grief can feel especially intense – even overwhelming. Find out what to do in this article for teens.|
|Going to a Therapist Getting help with emotions or stress is the same as getting help with a medical problem like asthma or diabetes. This article explains how therapy works and how it can help with problems.|
|Stress & Coping Center Visit our stress and coping center for advice on how to handle stress, including different stressful situations.|
|Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Special Needs Factsheet What teachers should know about posttraumatic stress disorder, and how to help students with PTSD.|
|Childhood Stress Being a kid doesn't always mean being carefree - even the youngest tots worry. Find out what stresses kids out and how to help them cope.|
|Abusive Relationships Abuse has no place in love. Read this article to find out how to recognize the signs of abuse and how you can get help.|
|The Story on Stress Stress happens when you are worried or uncomfortable about something. You may feel angry, frustrated, scared, or afraid. Our article for kids will help you manage stress.|
|About Teen Suicide When a teen commits suicide, everyone is affected. The reasons behind a suicide or attempted suicide can be complex, but often there are warning signs.|
|If Your Child Is Raped Someone who has been raped needs care, comfort, and a way to heal. Learn how to help if your child has been sexually assaulted.|
|Rape Rape is forced, unwanted sexual intercourse. Rape is about power, not sex. Both men and women of any age can be raped. Find out what you can do and how to take care of yourself after a rape.|
|Going to a Psychologist, Psychiatrist, or Therapist What's it like to go to a psychologist, psychiatrist, or therapist? Find out in this article for kids.|
What to expect when coming to Akron Children's
For healthcare providers and nurses
Residency & Fellowships, Medical Students, Nursing and Allied Health
For prospective employees and career-seekers
Our online community that provides inspirational stories and helpful information.