PTSD and Childhood Trauma – Symptoms and Treatment
For some people, experiencing childhood trauma can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Without the proper support and treatment, PTSD can last a lifetime. Annie Williams, a Vaya Health acute response care manager, spoke with us about the impact of trauma, symptoms of PTSD in children, and how to get help.
Childhood trauma happens more than you think
Childhood trauma doesn’t always come from abuse. Trauma can include living in poverty, witnessing violence or substance use, losing a close relative, divorce – it can even be caused by bullying.
Trauma’s lasting impact
“Even if a child doesn’t have a memory of a traumatic experience, we can still see how it impacts them,” Annie said.
How is this possible? Memory or no memory, trauma changes the brain. It alters the way you think, deal with emotions, and relate to other people. Left untreated, childhood trauma can cause lifelong damage.
ACEs, or adverse childhood experiences, are events or situations that are considered traumatic for a child. ACEs quizzes like this one can help people identify past traumas that may be affecting them in adulthood. People with high ACEs scores (meaning more traumatic experiences) are more likely to:
- Die younger
- Struggle with substance use
- Develop one or more mental health disorders
- Suffer from chronic health conditions
- Become involved with the criminal justice and incarceration system
Symptoms of trauma in kids
Annie explained that trauma and PTSD in children is often misdiagnosed as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Common symptoms of childhood PTSD include:
- Frequent memories and/or talk of the traumatic event(s)
- Fear of dying
- Loss of interest in activities
- Regular physical complaints such as headaches or stomachaches
- Extreme emotional reactions
- Trouble sleeping
- Irritability, anger, violence
- Difficulty concentrating
- Constant or often clingy or whiny behavior and regression to a younger age
- Increased vigilance or alertness to their environment
As a child becomes an adult, the PTSD symptoms can mimic other mental health disorders (such as depression, anxiety, hypervigilance, and substance use disorder).
Treating PTSD in children
Annie is also trained to deliver Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT) to families. “There’s a TF-CBT PRACTICE model,” she said. “Each letter stands for a part of the model that the child must go through.”
In the beginning, the child learns how to use coping skills. Then the TF-CBT provider will help the child and/or family identify the trauma. Eventually, they’ll address the trauma directly.
“Together, we create a trauma narrative. It doesn’t always have to be written,” Annie said. During her time using the PRACTICE model, she’s helped children with both written and verbal trauma narratives.
“To complete the PRACTICE model successfully, the child must walk through their trauma narrative with their supporting parent or guardian. It’s kind of like exposure therapy.”
Currently, TF-CBT is only clinically approved for children.
Outcomes of TF-CBT
“We see a lot less PTSD symptoms in children after TF-CBT,” Annie said. “We see a decrease in social anxiety and fear of public spaces.” She’s witnessed how the treatment has helped children get back to being kids. Children who complete TF-CBT are more likely to:
- Attend and succeed in school
- Participate in typical childhood activities
- Engage with their peers
- Feel secure in themselves and their environment
“Most of all,” she said, “it helps them feel safe again.”
Get started with services
If you think past trauma is impacting you or your child, help is available. If you’re a Vaya member, you can call our 24/7 Behavioral Health Crisis Line at 1-800-849-6127. If you’re not a Vaya member but live in North Carolina, you can start a free search for health care services by visiting NCCARE360 or by calling 2-1-1.