How to Recognize and Deal with Teens and Children with PTSD
One of the hardest parts of my job is helping people see what they couldn’t see before. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a beautiful experience to help you open your eyes to the good and the bad things in life, but when the “bad” part includes children and teens, it’s particularly difficult for me.
I used quotation marks in the word “bad” because I don’t believe there are good things or bad things in life, just things. And we are the ones who give them meaning.
Trauma response can be either “good” or “bad,” depending on how much you know yourself and how much you are willing to work on yourself (and with the help of other spiritual and mental professionals).
But what happens when the traumatized ones are children? How do you differentiate trauma-based behaviors from regular teenage apathy? How can parents know if their kids have gone through tough experiences?
Today I will dedicate this blog to teens and children with PTSD. During my professional exercise I have stumbled upon people who came to me to heal themselves, but in the journey discovered they could also help their loved ones who couldn’t ask for help.
How Does a Child or Teen Develop PTSD?
I have talked about PTSD in my blog before, but I understand that for many of you this disorder is something mostly associated with adults, right?
I mean, how could a child develop such a serious condition without you noticing it? Well, it’s not uncommon for teens and children with PTSD go undiagnosed.
Sorry to break your bubble, but it doesn’t matter if you are the best mom or dad, traumas can happen to anyone, anywhere, anytime.
Essentially speaking, PTSD is defined as a condition derived from exposure to a traumatic event. This can be exposure to all kinds of things: being there when it happened, if it happened to the kid, if he or she just saw it, etc.
Likewise, trauma can be a whole range of different things. What triggers a trauma in one person will not necessarily trigger it for someone else, and that’s one of the hardest things to understand about PTSD.
In the case of children with PTSD, parents often don’t understand how “they missed the signs” or “how could that happen,” so before mentioning what PTSD looks like in teens and children, let me be clear on this: we can’t control every aspect of our children’s lives. It is not your fault. You didn’t do anything to “deserve it,” and certainly neither did they.
Don’t go down the path of self-blame, instead be there. Be present. For yourself and your child, because realizing what’s going on will be a tough thing for both of you.
What Symptoms do Teens and Children with PTSD Have?
As I said in a previous post, PTSD is a highly underdiagnosed disorder because people tend to hide their symptoms for too long. It can be even more difficult to diagnose children with PTSD because their symptoms can be similar to other disorders.
PTSD can be misdiagnosed and labeled as depression or as an anxiety disorder. So, imagine how the story goes for diagnosing PTSD in children and teens.
In fact, it wasn’t until 2013 that the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) admitted that PTSD could be a children’s disorder too.
And a more terrifying fact: In a 2012 study of the National Center for Mental Health Promotion found that at least 26% of North American children will experience some traumatic event before they turn 4.
I will discuss what causes PTSD in children later, but for now, let’s list possible symptoms and signs to look for:
– Social withdrawal
– Nightmares and wetting the bed (especially alarming if the child had learned to control his/her bladder)
– Having a hard time focusing and paying attention at home and school
– Avoiding people and/or places
– Lack of positive emotions
– Hopeless sensation
– Regressive behaviors (playing with dolls, sleeping with the parents, wetting the bed)
– Numbness and denial of anything bad going on
– Evident sadness
– Constantly looking for threats
And as you can imagine, asking a 5-year-old kid the right questions to determine all of those symptoms is not going to be easy. Diagnosing children with PTSD involves a lot of questions and some detective skills connecting the dots to fully understand what’s going on.
A huge sign something is going on is recreating a trauma during playtime; re-enactment is the means your brain has “to heal”, like compulsively licking a wound in your mouth. You can’t stop touching and it will cause a slower scar healing.
Are PTSD Symptoms in Teens the Same as in Children with PTSD?
Mostly, yes. Remember that trauma is something unexpected, something that shocked you so hard it turned your mind into a whiteboard. You know that board was filled with something, but instead of remembering correctly what was written on it, the person unconsciously rewrites parts of the trauma from their perspective.
In the case of teens, the symptoms can begin to look more like adults’ symptoms. For example, it’s very strange to find enuresis cases in adults with PTSD, but in teens from 11 to 13 it is a possibility. This ties their symptoms more closely to the ones children have.
Then again, teens are more likely to display self-destructive behaviors and guilt, something not many children will exhibit, because they still don’t have the tools to understand those things.
It honestly depends a lot on the child’s/teen’s personality, but the symptoms I mentioned above have all been found in both teens and children with PTSD.
Children and Teens PTSD Causes
Now that we have talked about trauma being something completely out of our control, and something everybody experiences differently, we are ready to talk about the causes of PTSD in children and teens.
Just like in adults, children with PTSD are experiencing a response to trauma. This response is physical, emotional, and behavioral.
Some of the causes are:
– Sexual abuse
– Natural disasters
– War conflicts
– Home violence
– Physical and psychological abuse
– Witnessing another person in a violent scenario
– Being diagnosed with life-threatening diseases
– Being a victim of a crime (kidnapping, mugging, beating)
– Perpetuated bullying
Now that you have read these symptoms, you may notice that some of them are actually quite easy to spot (natural disasters, war conflicts), but others are really hard to identify, and that’s when the difficult part begins.
If you notice that your children or students, if you have them, display any or some of the symptoms I just mentioned, it’s time to start digging.
Just like in adults, identifying teens and children with PTSD early will make the healing part easier. And by “easier” I’m referring to the possibilities of dealing with it properly, no trauma can be healed overnight.
However, something is interesting: children and teens heal and/or learn to deal with PTSD better than adults do.
It is not yet clear why, but it is possibly because children haven’t faced the many worries of adult life. Some believe it is related to resilience.
It is important to detect possible PTSD signs in order to help them heal quickly, and to avoid re-exposing them to the same or different traumas.
But of course, as a father or mother, you need to understand that this event will also change your life forever. And I’m here for both of you.
Treating Teens and Children with PTSD
It’s important to understand that if the child or teen displayed one or many of the mentioned symptoms and then they disappear, it is still necessary to have then evaluated.
Yes, they are resilient, but it still necessary to discover what happened, when, and why, and make sure he or she is okay and not coping alone with all this mess.
Talking to trained professionals in a safe environment, at the child’s rhythm, helps them to deal with trauma and leads to long-term healing.
It’s a very delicate process because it involves reliving traumatic memories, detangling nightmares, and asking questions that can be perceived as harmful.
But healing is possible, especially for teens and children. Never forget that. Healing is possible.
Some options for dealing with PTSD in children and teens are:
– Cognitive-behavioral therapy: just like in adults, CBT is a common solution. Therapists often take the patient on a journey of self-discovery to help them identify what’s wrong, how it affects them, and how to move on from it. It’s a great option to defend the kid’s mind from irrational and illogical thoughts of guilt and self-destruction while helping them cope with negative emotions.
– Play therapy: One of the most effective treatments for children is play therapy. It helps them feel safe enough to communicate things through games that may be hard to say otherwise. Everything from playing with a dollhouse to drawing freely or simply assembling blocks is effective.
– Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR): This technique has gained popularity over the years. It is based on the supposition that negative thoughts, behaviors, and feelings occur because of unprocessed memories. It is supposed to release stress, reformulate negative beliefs or feelings, and get rid of physical discomfort. The patient is exposed to brief but sequential doses of disturbing images, sounds, or videos while simultaneously focusing on external variables that create new associations between the trauma and adaptive memories.
– Pharmacological: Just like there is no blood test to diagnose PTSD, there’s no magic pill that will heal our kids and teens from it. Medication is only prescribed to help alleviate symptoms like fear and anxiety, so the psychological treatment or approach is more effective. Do not reject the medication possibility, but don’t rely entirely on it either.
For some people, one treatment is not good enough or flexible enough.
Do not feel overwhelmed if treatment is not working for your son or daughter. Remain calm and inform yourself of other alternatives.
Parenting a Child with PTSD
This is going to be a hard task for your kid, but it is also going to be challenging for you.
All parents want to build a safe nest for their kids, but for reasons we are probably not ready to understand, sometimes our intentions have the opposite effect.
You need to understand that neither you nor your kid is responsible for what happened. Most parents come from harsh environments as well, and we do most of what we can to protect our children.
We can’t control everything around them, no matter how much we try. Getting rid of that guilt you are feeling is the first step toward helping. If you are well, it’s easier for your child to get the support and attention they need to heal.
Here are some things you can do as a parent:
– Learn to identify triggers
– Take one day at a time. Sometimes it may feel like re-starting the counter, like starting from scratch. But healing is a slow process, there’s no day without improvement, no matter how little it may seem.
– Inform yourself. Ask your doctor for more information about PTSD, find group meetings for parents with PTSD teens or children, inform other parents and teachers that have contact with your child about his condition, and demand a proper approach to it. I mean it, demand it, do not let them ignore this.
– Encourage and empower children. An important part of any PTSD therapy is changing the mindset from “victim” to “survivor.” Yes, what happened was terrible, but just like adults, children and teens should not label themselves a victim.
If you feel isolated, frustrated, exhausted, sad, and hopeless because you don’t know how to deal with your child’s PTSD, contact me now.
You and your child can heal from this. I’m more than happy to listen to you and to help both of you to move on.
And remember, the earlier the detection the better the outcome, for both of you. Beware of the signs, keep calm, and seek help.