Could Your Child Have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?

If your child has experienced a serious trauma don't overlook the possibility of PTSD.

You may have read about the recent Toys R Us shooting in my hometown of Palm Springs. The 911 tapes on the tragedy were released this week. Horror. Sheer horror! Our community is reeling, but now we worry about the children who witnessed absolute terror. Can you imagine? Here's a recap:

It was Black Friday and parents--many with kids in tow--waited long hours for those great toy sales. A mid-morning an argument broke out at our local Toys"R" Us between two young women. Suddenly one women's male companions drew weapons and opened fire in the middle of the store aisles. Within minutes the men lay dead in the aisle. Words can't describe the shock of such an event. A gun battle in the middle of a toy store during the Christmas holidays filled with kids and their parents. But concern is now turning to those terrified children who watched this debacle as they clung to their parents and feared for their lives.

I've spent the last days doing media interviews about how to help children deal with the aftermath of such a trauma. I discovered that many parents assumed that, because their children didn't say anything about shooting or appeared to be handling things "well", there was no need to worry. That perception has me greatly concerned. While I don't want to fuel any anxiety, I do want to alert you: Any child experiencing such trauma is at risk for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder has been in the news a lot these days because of our military returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, but PTSD isn't just for adults. Each year over 3 million children are diagnosed with PTSD. Children or adolescents who have experienced a very stressful event could be at risk. The stressful event is one in which someone's life has been threatened or a serious injury has occurred.

In the last few years more and more kids are experiencing such traumatic events, such as experiencing or witnessing a serious accident, natural disasters (like a fire, flood, tornado, earthquake, hurricane), domestic abuse, gang-related violence in the community, a shooting or violent attack, sexual or physical assault, terrorism, or being diagnosed with a life-threatening illness. New research shows that the death of a parent can also trigger the disorder.

Though most kids react to stress only briefly and then recover, some do not. Their fear may last to the point that they are unable to cope with life. The traumatic event may be replayed over and over in their minds. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is when those fears last (sometimes for months or years) or even come back after the trauma. The key word in this disorder is "post." That means a child with PTSD usually displays symptoms within three months following the tragedy, but they may not start until weeks, months or even years later. That's why if you know your child has experienced trauma you need to tune in a little closer and watch for signs.

Here are a few signs of PTSD that the American Academy of Pediatrics says you should watch for:

  • Frequent memories of the event or playing and replaying the event
  • Upsetting and frightening dreams or having trouble falling asleep and staying asleep
  • Losing interest in activities or withdrawing from friends
  • Avoiding situations or places that remind them of the trauma
  • Problems concentrating and focusing
  • Regressive behaviors (starting to suck his thumb, bed-wet, be clinging like he did at a much younger age
  • Irritability, angry outbursts
  • Worrying about death and talking about dying
  • A heightened sense of their environment like a hyper-vigilance.
  • Less responsive emotionally or depressed or detached from their feelings.

Every child responds differently to stress. That's why it's important that you use your instincts about your child. If you see an uncharacteristic change that concerns you, that lasts longer than two weeks and is impacting your child's life, get help! Telling your child to not think about it or get over it does not work. The key to helping the child is intervention and ASAP. Only a trained and credentialed mental health professional who understands PTSD should be contacted. Check with the American Psychological Association (APA.) or American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) online. Ask your pediatrician or in some states call 211 for a list of referrals. There are effective treatments but the sooner you get the right treatment the sooner the recovery.

Though this topic may not be one facing your child now, please keep them in mind. Sometime in your lifetime you or a member of your family may have to face a tragedy and if they do, you'll be ready to help your child cope.

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12Secrets_Borba.jpgDr. Michele Borba is the author of over 22 books including 12 Simple Secrets Real Moms Know.

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