Most people will suffer some form of trauma in their lifetime. It can be something relatively minor like a fender bender or something major like experiencing the events of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. The trauma could be a one-time event or it can be an ongoing series of events like being in a war with a different battle every day. A person can experience trauma be witnessing an event such as seeing a violent act or watching the World Trade Center collapse on television.
How well or badly a person reacts to traumatic events is dependent on a variety of factors such as the type of trauma, severity of the trauma, their age, their sex, and how well prepared they were for the traumatic event. A person’s response can range from almost no reaction at all to a case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). For children, the reactions are usually on the more severe end of the spectrum of possible responses.
PTSD symptoms appear in a large percentage of patients who receive outpatient mental health services. Children are especially likely to be affected by a traumatic event because they don’t have the coping skills of an adult. Many children who witness violence in their lives such as a shooting or a fire will develop PTSD symptoms.
Children who witness violence among their loved ones are vulnerable to PTSD because they have an emotional component to the traumatic event. Children who are the victims of physical violence or sexual abuse will likely suffer from PTSD. Girls are statistically more likely to develop symptoms of PTSD than boys will and minorities tend to have higher rates of PTSD.
Just as different people have different abilities to handle physical pain they also have different abilities to handle the emotional pain. Our responses to a trauma are very individualized.
PTSD can create problems in the day to day functioning of the children who suffer from it. They may suffer flashbacks or have intrusive memories, thoughts they just cannot shake. The child may suffer from recurrent nightmares making sleep a scary experience to be avoided.
The child may become overly fearful of situations or places that remind them of the traumatic event. Imagine how hard it may be for a child to go outside after witnessing a crime in their neighborhood. This experience may lead to the child being scared to leave the house at all, never going to school, church or a relative’s house. The child may become super alert and never be able to relax. This is a very sad picture of what trauma can do to a child.
But it does not have to be that way. There are treatments for PTSD which minimize the effects of a trauma on the child. Most important is to seek help immediately after a child suffers through a traumatic event.
The sooner you get help the less likely it is that the child will develop long-lasting and harmful symptoms. Some children may require some counseling and feel fine while some more severely affected children may require counseling and some medications.
Professional help delivered by people trained in teaching children how to deal with emotional issues is available at the local mental health centers or can be accessed through any primary care doctor.