PTSD Symptoms & Effects

After experiencing, witnessing, or learning about a trauma, some people struggle with overwhelming anxiety, fear, and distress that can cause insurmountable disruption in their daily lives. When this happens, an individual is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, also known as PTSD. Symptoms of this mental health condition remain present long after the initial trauma occurred and lead to devastating effects if left untreated.

Most people think of PTSD as a disorder that affects only adults. However, despite this misconception, children and adolescents can suffer from symptoms as well. Onset of this disorder can occur following a natural disaster, after exposure to trauma, abuse or neglect, or in the event a loved one close to the child or adolescent dies. School performance, ability to adhere to rules, and social skills can all be effected if a child is experiencing PTSD symptoms. The important thing to know is that treatment options are available to help a child or adolescent process traumas, develop healthy coping skills, and understand the impact of trauma so as to prevent symptoms from causing further destruction. When this kind of treatment is implemented, children and adolescents with PTSD are able to lead happy, healthy, and productive lives.

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Statistics

Research has found that post-traumatic stress disorder affects more girls than boys, with 3 to 15% of girls meeting criteria for this disorder compared to 1 to 6% of boys. However, experts believe that prevalence rates of PTSD among children and adolescents are not accurate as a number of cases go unreported.

Causes and Risk Factors for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

The causes and risk factors for the development of PTSD are dependent on a number of variables. Certain genetic, physical, and environmental influences are said to be determining factors that can make an individual more susceptible to PTSD than others. Because children and adolescents are emotionally underdeveloped compared to adults, necessary coping mechanisms for dealing with trauma could bring about symptoms associated with this mental illness. When trying to understand PTSD’s origins for an individual, namely for a child or adolescent, one must consider the following explanations:

Genetic: If a child or adolescent has a family history of certain mental disorders, specifically that of anxiety disorders, there is an increased risk that he or she could display symptoms of PTSD following a trauma. This connection between mental illnesses and family history infers that certain mental disorders can, in fact, be genetic and make an individual more susceptible to developing conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder.

Physical: When there is a family history of anxiety, children and adolescents could have a genetic disposition for altered brain chemistry that could lead to greater susceptibility to PTSD symptoms. Individuals with PTSD symptoms have been found to have chemical imbalances in their brains that causes unhealthy responses to stress. Moreover, those with post-traumatic stress disorder are believed to have structural differences in their brains that could also explain why some develop PTSD following a trauma while others do not.

Environmental: Because an outside stimulus is what can trigger post-traumatic stress disorder, a person’s environment is believed to be a major cause for the development for this mental health condition. Exposure to chronic stress, chaos, trauma, abuse, neglect, or being the victim of bullying or a crime can lead to the onset of PTSD symptoms.  

Risk Factors:

  • Being female
  • Family history of anxiety disorders or other mental health disorder
  • Having a pre-existing mental illness
  • Exposure to trauma /abuse / neglect
  • Being bullied
  • Being the victim of a crime
  • Suffering the loss of a loved one
  • Lacking appropriate coping skills
  • Insufficient support network

Signs and Symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Following a traumatic event or experience, a child or adolescent may begin to show signs and symptoms associated with PTSD. Depending on the type of trauma, the level of support surrounding the individual, and the age of the child or adolescent, the signs and symptoms may be more obvious in some more than others. Below are the behavioral, physical, cognitive, and psychosocial symptoms that may be present in a child or adolescent who is suffering from PTSD:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Self-harm
  • Bedwetting
  • Sleepwalking
  • Aggressive or violent outbursts
  • Engaging in risky sexual behaviors
  • Avoiding certain people, places, or situations reminiscent of the trauma
  • Exacerbated startle response

Physical symptoms:

  • Flack backs about the trauma
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Panic attacks
  • Muscle tension
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Labored breathing
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Profuse sweating
  • Trembling

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Poor concentration
  • Feeling out of body / detached from the world around
  • Night terrors
  • Hallucinations

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Pervasive sadness
  • Low self-esteem
  • Distrustful of others
  • Declined interest in things or activities that were once enjoyed
  • Negative disposition
  • Loneliness
  • Emotional numbness
  • Feelings of impending doom
  • Ongoing worry
  • Unwarranted anger
  • Suicidal ideation
If you feel that you are in crisis, or are having thoughts about hurting yourself or others, please call 9-1-1 or go to the nearest emergency room immediately.

Effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

The long and short-term effects of untreated PTSD can be lasting if care and treatment is not pursued. Children and adolescents who suffer from this mental health condition could experience these effects well into adulthood if symptoms are not addressed. Effects that could be experienced can include:

  • Pervasive feelings of worry
  • Overwhelming fear
  • Elevated levels of anxiety
  • Poor attachment with caregivers
  • Conflict with others
  • Acting out behaviors
  • Experimentation or abuse of drugs and/or alcohol
  • Development of another mental health condition
  • Low self-esteem
  • Self-harm
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Suicide attempts

Co-Occurring Disorders

The symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder often overlap or trigger symptoms associated with another mental illness. Other mental disorders that can be diagnosed in a person with PTSD can include:

  • Substance use disorders
  • Depressive disorders
  • Bi-polar disorder
  • Eating disorders
  • Borderline personality disorder
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