Childhood PTSD Symptoms in Tots, Teens, and In Between

shutterstock_263083007Thank you for stopping by to check out the seventh installment in Jolene Philo’s weekly series about childhood PTSD. In this post, we’ll be looking at symptoms of PTSD in children from infancy through age 18. As you read, keep in mind that these symptoms are commonly seen in children shortly after a traumatic event. For most children, symptoms gradually fade as the trauma is processed and laid to rest. Therefore, a diagnosis of childhood PTSD is not made unless symptoms continue at least 3 months after the original trauma.

As you would expect, symptoms of childhood PTSD change as children mature. Behavioral clues and symptoms in a 2-year-old will be different from those of an 8-year-old, and the 8-year-old’s symptoms may be markedly different from those of an 17-year-old. Therefore, most therapists and mental health experts list symptoms of childhood PTSD in 4 age groups: birth to 3, 3 to 6, 7 to 12, and 13 to 18.

3 Categories of Childhood PTSD Symptoms

Furthermore, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5) which practitioners use to diagnose mental illness, organizes symptoms of PTSD in 3 categories: intrusive, arousal, and avoidant symptoms. Intrusive symptoms occur when something triggers an unwanted memory of a traumatic event. Arousal symptoms occur when something triggers the body to go into a state of high alert, also known as hyperarousal. Avoidant symptoms come after hyperarousal when the body responds naturally by trying to avoid a threat or pain. Now let’s look at how each category of symptoms is manifested by children within the 4 age groups mentioned earlier.

Symptoms of Childhood PTSD from Birth to 3

Many intrusive symptoms for children in this age group concern sleep patterns. Babies and toddlers may have a hard time falling asleep and experience nightmares once they fall asleep. They may respond violently to something that reminds them of the original trigger. For example, a 1-year-old who was bitten by a dog may become irrational at the sight of a dog Traumatized children in this age group often have a tendency to startle easily, a common arousal symptom. Other arousal symptoms could be excessive fussiness, temper tantrums, severe separation anxiety, and digestive problems. Avoidant symptoms may include withdrawing, avoiding people associated with the trauma, extreme sadness, or a lack of any demonstration of emotion.

Symptoms of Childhood PTSD from 4 to 6

Children in this age group continue to have sleep issues caused by memories that make kids too scared to fall asleep or intrude as nightmares. They may reenact their trauma repeatedly when playing. At school intrusive memories make it hard to pay attention. Children may experience flashbacks that look like daydreaming. Because they are so distracted at school, kids sometimes fall behind in their studies. Arousal symptoms in children on high alert may be displayed through acting out, uncontrollable temper, and aggressiveness. They have a lot of stomach aches and headaches, and they startle easily. Avoidant symptoms at this age are caused by fear. They’re afraid of being away from their parents or near anyone or anything associated with the original trauma. Therefore, they appear to be highly anxious and insecure.

Symptoms of Childhood PTSD from 7 to 12

Some of the intrusive symptoms for 7 to 12-year-olds are similar to those of the previous age group. Kids may have frequent sleep issues. Younger children in this group may may reenact the trauma in play. But as they get older, they may tell others about the event repeatedly. Lack of attentiveness because of intrusive memories may affect behavior or grades. They display arousal symptoms with a quick startle response and sometimes overly dramatic responses to bumps and bruises. They may be anxious about their own safety and the safety of family members. Avoidant symptoms can be complaints of aches and pains that are hard to substantiate but that allow kids to avoid situations they fear or emotional numbness.

Symptoms of Childhood PTSD from 13 to 18

As teens approach adulthood, their symptoms are less like those of children and more like those of adults. The intrusion of traumatic memories may cause sleep disturbances. They often want to talk about the traumatic event more than seems healthy and in great detail. Teens may have a hard time concentrating at school or work, so their performance may be poor. When in the state of hyperarousal, traumatized teens tend to be very impulsive. They spend money wildly, drive to fast, and engage in risky sexual behavior. They may also appear depressed or isolate themselves. Because teens have more freedom than younger children, they also have more access to drugs and alcohol to avoid their feelings and fears–or at least numb them for a while. Or they may develop eating disorders or self-harming behaviors. Some teens will deny any emotions about the original event, refuse to discuss it, or be unable to recognize their own emotions.

A Final Symptom Worth Noting

One other symptom is worthy of note. After a traumatic event, children often regress and demonstrate behaviors long since abandoned. Young children may refuse the sippy cup and demand a bottle or pacifier. Toddlers who are potty trained may begin wetting their pants. Young children may start sucking their thumbs again or may not fall asleep without the blankie or stuffed animal discarded weeks or months ago. Older children may revert to baby talk or climb on a parent’s lap to be rocked. Fears of monsters under the bed may resurface. Teens may suddenly switch on night lights, leave the bedroom lights on, or even want to bunk in the same room with parents or siblings. These behaviors are an attempt to return to the time before the trauma occurred when life was safe and secure.

Once again, remember that a diagnosis of childhood PTSD is not made unless symptoms continue more than 3 months after the traumatic event. If your child’s symptoms are still present after those 3 months, you should secure the services of a mental health professional who can help your child process and release the traumatic memories trapped inside.


JoleneGreenSweater.jpgDoes 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, Jolene Philo provides critical information to help people understand causes, symptoms, prevention, and effective diagnosis, treatment, and care for any child struggling with PTSD. Available 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, was ranked fourth among the top 100 children's ministry blogs in 2015 by Ministry to Children.
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2 Responses to Childhood PTSD Symptoms in Tots, Teens, and In Between

  1. I saw myself in something in particular above. Yet another piece of discovery on my way to healing. Thank you for posting this.


  2. Sheree Knotts says:

    I had a micro preemie 22 years ago. She was such a quiet baby, toddler and child. Always well behaved, no ‘terrible twos,’ never threw a tantrum. I always wondered if the three months in NICU affected her in a negative way, harmed her psyche. Now I read all of the things in these blogs and believe that it did happen. She is in counseling now but I realize it is so much more than depression. So much more needs done for her. I want her to share this information with her counselor and see what can be done to make her a vibrant, happy adult.


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