While it is more likely that your child will not develop PTSD, a small minority of children will. Symptoms can be different in children of different ages. For instance, younger children do not always get distressed when experiencing these symptoms. Sometimes they can show nothing or even get excited.
The following symptoms of PTSD are ones that are typically associated with your child’s age (the following symptoms do not include the full spectrum of behaviours your infant or child may show):
Babies and young children (0–5)
Young children often do not have the capacity to say how they’re feeling and are more likely to act out through behaviours. As a result, sometimes kids who have experienced trauma are thought of as naughty, misbehaving, aggressive or very shy, rather than as suffering the after-effects of the traumatic event. Below are some of the behaviours you may see in your young children that may indicate they need some more support.
Separation anxiety. This is where infants or young children don’t want to be alone or without Mum or Dad, are very clingy, or don’t want to explore or play with other children.
Getting very upset or distressed, where they may be inconsolable, when reminded of things to do with the event. Things that young children remember about the event can be different from adults, so it may seem like they are getting upset over nothing or ‘out of nowhere’.
Trouble sleeping or persistent nightmares. Trouble sleeping can also be because of increased anxiety or fears about the dark or being alone.
New fears or old fears coming back, like fears of the dark or toilet, or fears that seem strange like fear of cars or the playground. Children can associate even non-threatening things with the stress of the event and their fear it may happen again. For example, if you used a car to leave your home, or if the event happened while your child was playing outside, they can associate cars or the playground with the event.
Repetitive play. Children need to watch and do things many times to learn new skills and to integrate new experiences; however, if your child’s play repeats itself over many months or even years, and doesn’t seem to change or evolve, this can indicate they may be having trouble.
Regression of new skills. Children can sometimes temporarily ‘lose’ skills that have been recently been developed as a reaction to trauma. They can refuse to use the toilet, stop speaking or speak using limited words instead of sentences.
Middle childhood (6–8 years) and later childhood (9–12 years)
PTSD symptoms in middle childhood (6–8 years) and later childhood (9–12 years) are similar to each other but depend on the child and their circumstances.
Some of the symptoms of PTSD for these children are:
- unexplained illness or aches and pains
- denying the event happened or refusing to talk about it
- remembering what happened in the wrong order or missing parts
- seeing ‘signs’ that predicted the event or thinking it happened (or will happen again) because of something they did
- an infatuation with disaster preparedness, like having a bag constantly packed and with them, or taking things with them to ‘protect themselves’
- difficulty at school, concentrating, or paying attention
- ‘playing disaster’ or ‘playing death’ through games, creative expression (writing stories or drawing pictures)
- a lack of positivity or hope for the future. Some children will expect disasters to happen again, or will resist thinking about the future
- choices that are self-destructive or impulsive. Destructive or impulsive choices can sometimes come as a response to thinking that the future cannot be positive, so it doesn’t matter what they do
- sadness, hopelessness, or despair
- low self-esteem or feeling like others can’t be trusted
- behaviours reminiscent of younger children (clinginess, fussiness, not wanting to go to school or be alone, not wanting to toilet or sleep) or much older children (substance use, aggression and fighting, sexual promiscuity, self-harm).