What Causes PTSD in Children?

Causes shutterstock_217708963When adults think about what causes PTSD in children, most have an easy time coming up with a short list. Physical, sexual, and verbal abuse make the list. So do natural disasters like tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes. Unexpected events like car accidents and fires usually make the list. Most people add violent events such as war, terrorist attacks, and kidnapping. Neglect, hunger, homelessness, and poverty and other environments of deprivation may be included.

Adults think of those items because they can be traumatic to anyone of any age. However, many other situations or events that adults consider to be benign can cause PTSD in children. The reason goes back to the definition of trauma discussed in part two of this series. That post said childhood trauma springs from the scary, painful, and yucky bits of childhood.

Causes of PTSD in Children

When we think of what causes PTSD in children, it’s essential to view life events through child-colored glasses. Those glasses make us small and powerless. At the same time, the adults in our lives become large and all-powerful. From that vantage point, the list of what can be scary, painful, and yucky grows quickly and looks something like this.

  • Physical, sexual, or emotional abuse
  • Observing a loved one being abused
  • Becoming a victim of bullying
  • Witnessing violence at home, at school, or in the community
  • Watching media accounts of traumatic events
  • Experiencing a devastating illness or death
  • Undergoing frequent family moves or repeated foster care placements
  • Experiencing homelessness
  • Poverty and racism
  • Surviving car or plane accidents
  • Experiencing falls or athletic injuries
  • Living through earthquakes, floods, severe storms, fires, or other natural disasters
  • Witnessing war or terrorism
  • Living as a war refugee
  • Experiencing medical trauma
  • Adoption
  • Moving
  • Divorce

Causes of PTSD in Babies

For babies, the smallest and most dependent humans, other items must be added to the list, also.

  • Trauma experienced by pregnant mothers
  • A difficult birth
  • Leaving the mother’s warm, dark, enclosing womb and entering a cold, brightly lit, roomy delivery room after an uneventful birth
  • Washing, weighing, and measuring the infant before allowing mother and baby skin-to-skin time
  • Invasive medical procedures and surgery, including circumcision
  • Abrupt separation from the birth mother
  • Colic and other digestive issues like reflux
  • Painful and reoccurring illnesses and conditions such as ear infections and diaper rash
  • Neglect of basic needs including hunger, physical and emotional comfort, touch, and bonding time with the caregiver

9 PTSD Risk Factors for Children

Learning about all the possible causes of childhood PTSD can be alarming. Almost every child has experiences a few things found on the above lists. The good news is that most children don’t develop PTSD after experiencing traumatic events. Research is being conducted to discover why some children are more resilient than others. But mental health care professionals already know some factors exist that increase the risk of developing PTSD.

  1. Prior history of traumatic events. Children exposed to frequent trauma are more likely to develop PTSD.
  2. The type of traumatic event. Witnessing violent events or the abuse of a parents are more traumatic to kids than natural disasters.
  3. The reaction of parents and caregivers. Children are more likely to be impacted by a trauma if their parents show a great deal of distress about what happened.
  4. The relationship of the child to the perpetrator of the event. Abuse by people close to the child results in PTSD more than abuse by a stranger.
  5. The child’s mental health history. A child already diagnosed with a mental condition is at greater risk of developing PTSD after a trauma.
  6. The child’s temperament. PTSD is more likely to develop in children with difficult personalities or who display antisocial behavior.
  7. The age when the trauma occurs. The earlier the trauma, the greater the risk of PTSD.
  8. Family history. Children of parents have PTSD are more likely to develop PTSD.
  9. Genetics. Certain gene variations increase the risk of developing PTSD. Also, two times as many girls as boys are diagnosed with PTSD.

PTSD in Children Is Not Hopeless

Once again, learning about the many causes of trauma in children can be alarming. But remember that not every child who is traumatized develops PTSD. In fact, parents and professionals can employ many techniques to help children process traumatic events and prevent PTDD. And children who do develop PTSD can receive treatment and therapy to help them heal and cope. So come back for future posts in this series to learn more about PTSD in children, including how to prevent and treat it. Until then, stay hopeful!


Does My Child Have PTSD?Author Jolene Philo was always told that “”babies don’t feel any pain”” and that her son would not remember the traumatic surgeries and hospital visits he endured as a young child. However, research has shown that when childen experience medical illness, witness violence, or are abused, it can leave a lasting effect. According to recent studies, fifty to sixty percent of children who experience these traumas early in life may suffer from a form of PTSD, leading to issues in childhood, through adolescence, and even into adulthood. Does My Child Have PTSD? is designed for readers looking for answers about the puzzling, disturbing behaviors of childen in their care. With years of research and personal expererience, Philo provides critical information to help people understand causes, symptoms, prevention, and effective diagnosis, treatment, and care for any child struggling with PTSD. Available for pre-order at Amazon.

About Dr. G

Dr. Stephen Grcevich serves as President and Founder of Key Ministry, a non-profit organization providing free training, consultation, resources and support to help churches serve families of children with disabilities. Dr. Grcevich is a graduate of Northeastern Ohio Medical University (NEOMED), trained in General Psychiatry at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation and in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at University Hospitals of Cleveland/Case Western Reserve University. He is a faculty member in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at two medical schools, leads a group practice in suburban Cleveland (Family Center by the Falls), and continues to be involved in research evaluating the safety and effectiveness of medications prescribed to children for ADHD, anxiety and depression. He is a past recipient of the Exemplary Psychiatrist Award from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Dr. Grcevich was recently recognized by Sharecare as one of the top ten online influencers in children’s mental health. His blog for Key Ministry, www.church4everychild.org was ranked fourth among the top 100 children's ministry blogs in 2015 by Ministry to Children.
This entry was posted in Hidden Disabilities, Key Ministry, Mental Health, PTSD, Resources and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to What Causes PTSD in Children?

  1. Pingback: Does My Child Have PTSD? Is on the Way! | Different Dream – Medics Online

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