Signs, Symptoms, & Causes of PTSD & Trauma

The first step to getting help is recognizing the problem. If you’re concerned your child or teenager may be suffering from PTSD, learn more about the signs and symptoms to watch for.

Understanding PTSD

Learn about PTSD

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a serious illness that occurs after a person has been exposed to a traumatic event that causes them to suffer chronic, unwanted feelings of distress long after the event occurred. These severe feelings of distress can lead the person who has PTSD to experience significant impairment in his or her ability to function appropriately on a daily basis and treatment is necessary to recover. People who suffer from PTSD may experience symptoms such as intense nightmares, severe anxiety, and vivid flashbacks.

While many people label children as be resilient, the reality is that many of them suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder after having experienced a traumatic event, a series of connected traumatic events, or consistently stressful situations. Not every child who lives through a traumatic event will go on to develop PTSD, but for those who do, some will begin experiencing symptoms immediately following the event, while others may not begin experiencing symptoms until weeks, months, or, in some cases, even years after the event occurs. Any situation that causes a person to feel as though they are in danger or are helpless in some way can lead to the development of PTSD. However, the traumatic events that are most commonly known to trigger PTSD in children and adolescents include:

  • Natural disasters
  • War
  • Exposure to violence
  • Kidnapping
  • Rape / sexual assault
  • Physical assault
  • Suffering from physical, sexual, and/or emotional abuse
  • Suffering from neglect
  • Plane crashes / car accidents
  • Terrorist attacks
  • Sudden, unexpected death of a family member or loved one


PTSD statistics

It is difficult for researchers to gather accurate statistics as to how many children and adolescents suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder as many suffer ongoing traumas in the privacy of their own homes without the voice to report their suffering. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs National Center for PTSD reports that around three million reports of child abuse and neglect occur each year, which equates to approximately 5.5 million children. Reports indicate that between 3%-15% of girls and 1%-6% of boys develop PTSD.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for PTSD in children and teens

The causes and risk factors of posttraumatic stress disorder are characterized somewhat differently than those associated with other mental disorders. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) breaks down whether or not people will develop PTSD into risk factors and resiliency factors. According to NIMH, risk factors are characteristics that increase the likelihood that a person will develop PTSD, while resiliency factors help in reducing the risk of the development of the disorder. The following are examples of risk factors and resiliency factors believed to play a role in whether or not a child or teen will develop posttraumatic stress disorder as the result of a traumatic event:

Risk Factors:

  • Family history of mental illness
  • Being exposed to extreme violence
  • Suffering from physical, sexual, or emotional abuse
  • Being neglected
  • Being the victim of physical assault or sexual assault / rape
  • Experiencing the death of someone they greatly cared about or relied upon to meet their immediate or emotional needs
  • Repeatedly moving from one foster care home to another
  • Living through natural disasters that have devastating consequences on the world directly around them

Children and adolescents typically have to rely on adults to provide them with resources needed to develop resiliency factors.

Resiliency Factors:

  • Having parents and/or guardians who can provide them with feelings of safety and reassurance
  • Being taught coping mechanisms that can be successfully applied in the aftermath of a traumatic event
  • Being removed from a situation that could potentially cause future harm
  • Being provided with access to therapeutic interventions, including individual therapists, group therapy support, and/or possible medication implementation (such as antidepressants or antianxiety meds)

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of PTSD in children and teens

The signs and symptoms of PTSD will vary from child to child depending on the type of trauma experienced, the environment in which the child or teen is surrounded following the traumatic event, the child’s temperament, and the presence of parents or guardians who provide the child with a sense of safety following the event. Examples of various symptoms that children and adolescents suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder may exhibit can include:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Avoidance of certain people, places, or activities
  • Bedwetting
  • Sleepwalking
  • Exaggerated startle response
  • Acting out sexually
  • Acting out aggressively
  • Self-harm

Physical symptoms:

  • Amplified physical reactions when reminded of the trauma (e.g. muscle tension, profuse sweating, rapid breathing, pounding heart, nausea, etc.)
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Chronic headaches
  • Decreased energy / feeling overly fatigued without reason

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Nightmares / night terrors
  • Vivid flashbacks
  • Depersonalization
  • Derealization
  • Memory problems
  • Difficulty concentrating

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Loss of interest in things one used to enjoy
  • Low self-esteem
  • Lacking trust in others
  • Increased feelings of emotional arousal
  • Feelings of detachment / feeling emotionally numb
  • Decreased ability to feel and express positive emotions
  • Extreme feelings of worry, fear, sadness, and anger


Effects of PTSD in children and teens

If children and adolescents do not receive treatment for PTSD, the illness can have detrimental effects on their lives and their futures. Some examples of these negative, long-term effects can include:

  • Chronic feelings of fear, worry, and anxiety
  • Social isolation
  • Low self-worth
  • Inability to develop trust in others
  • Inability to develop and maintain healthy interpersonal relationships
  • Deterioration in health
  • Self-harm
  • Suicidal thoughts and behaviors

Co-Occurring Disorders

PTSD and co-occurring disorders

There are multiple disorders that can co-exist alongside PTSD. In some cases, the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder will lead to the onset of symptoms of other disorders. Research has shown that people who suffer from PTSD are 80% more likely than those who do not to meet the diagnostic criteria for another mental illness. The most common disorders that are known to co-occur with PTSD include:

  • Anxiety disorders
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Depressive disorders
  • Substance abuse disorders