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Understanding How Trauma Affects Children and Young People: PTSD

When your child has gone through a distressing and traumatic experience, it is incredibly hard to process and navigate as a parent. You may find yourself questioning what to say and how to support your child. Trauma experienced during childhood can have profound and enduring effects on a child’s development and well-being. Understanding these effects and implementing appropriate support are crucial steps toward promoting healing and resilience in children and young people who have experienced trauma. In this post we will explore the impact of trauma, and when to get professional support written by a Clinical Psychologist who specialises in childhood trauma.

PTSD children

Types of Trauma

There is no definition of what makes an event traumatic, and whether something is traumatic to a person is ultimately dependent on how they feel. Typically, trauma involves a threat to our sense of safety or emotions, and can often leave a feeling of powerlessness. Trauma can include a single distressing event, such as a car accident, natural disaster, sexual assault or witnessing violence. Trauma can also include prolonged exposure to distressing events, such as ongoing bullying, physical, emotional or sexual abuse. It can also include multiple complex factors such as living in or fleeing a war zone, or experiencing multiple traumatic events within the caregiving system, such as domestic violence, substance abuse by caregivers, or repeated loss of loved ones.

Trauma is not a mental health condition, however experiencing trauma can lead to a range of mental health difficulties including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Depression and Anxiety. It is important as a parent to be able to recognise the symptoms to ensure timely professional support.

Symptoms of PTSD

Not all young people that have experienced a traumatic event will go onto develop PTSD. Many will experience high levels of distress, which will eventually become a memory (although often a painful memory). High levels of distress is a normal reaction to an abnormal situation. However, it is estimated that up to 15% of young people that experience a trauma go onto develop PTSD. PTSD is a diagnostic label used to describe a profile of symptoms that people sometimes develop after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event:

PTSD typically causes four different groups of symptoms: 

  • Intrusions or reliving the traumatic event, which can include intrusive memories, nightmares, flashbacks and high distress triggered by reminders of the event.

  • Avoidance: internal avoidance of thoughts, memories or feelings and/or external avoidance of places, people or situations that are associated with the event.

  • Hyper-vigilance to threat, which can include irritability, easily fearful, difficulties with sleep or concentration.

Other symptoms include negative emotions and beliefs about themselves, the world and others and/or a feeling of detachment.

There is a second, subtype of PTSD, known as Complex PTSD, or C-PTSD. This often related to repeated, or sustained traumas, and presents in a similar way to PTSD, with additional difficulties:

  • Affect dysregulation (such as signfiicant irritability or anger, a numbness or lack of feeling)

  • Beliefs relating to blame, failure and feeling of guilt and shame relating to the traumatic event

  • Difficulties in sustaining relationships

How to Help my Child?

The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence provide clinical guidelines, based on the best research evidence. NICE guidelines recommend an assessment and trauma-focused therapy, such as trauma-focused cognitive behavioural therapy for children and young people exhibiting symptoms described above. This should be adapted for your child's age and any neurodevelopmental conditions.

At The Lotus Psychology Practice, we are experienced in assessing and providing evidence-based psychological therapy for children and young people that have experienced trauma. Please get in touch if you would like to hear more about how we can help.


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