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Post Traumatic Stress Disorder PTSD in Children, Stories,How You Can Help Symptoms and Treatment Classical Conditioning

Updated on September 12, 2011

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Many associate Post Traumatic Stress Disorder with war, as this is how most were introduced to this disorder. However, soldiers and war veterans are not the only people to suffer from this disorder. Very commonly, children are the victims.

Let me begin with the basics of the disorder.

  • "Post" meaning after, indicates the symptoms of PTSD occur after an event.
  • "Traumatic" meaning that the event causes great distress, emotional shock and disruption in ones life.
  • "Stress" meaning a stimulus or circumstance that causes such a condition of worry, depression or anxiety.
  • "Disorder" is a disturbance in the norm

Which trauma is most likely to produce PTSD symptoms?

The types of trauma most likely to produce PTSD symptoms are “traumatic events”, such as combat, rape, car accident, witnessing a crime such as murder, abuse, fire and/or flood. In children it can present itself with experiencing sexual/physical abuse, school shootings, a traumatic event happening to a prent, a death of parent, a peer suicide.  

For example, my daughter and I witnessed a murder at our home. A man diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia shot and killed the downstairs neighbor as he pulled into a parking spot. He thought he was coming to kill him and so he killed him first. My daughter especially had symptoms and diagnoses of PTSD. She was 7 years old at the time and still experiences fear, hyper-vigilance, depression and flashbacks.

How PSTD Works

By understanding classical conditioning, this will help one to understand how one acquires PTSD?

Classical conditioning is neutral stimulus paired with an important event. We can understand how one acquires PTSD by associating the trauma with the trigger. For example. Someone is robbed in a dark alley by a bald man with a beard.

Danger is now associated with dark alleys, bald man and beards.

Symptoms of PTSD in Children

Symptoms can vary with each child, and depending on the age of the child, symptoms may be unclear to recognize. Some common symptoms include:

  • Flashbacks- having frequent memories of the event
  • The activity is repeated in play
  • Nightmares
  • Worry about dying
  • Loss of interest
  • Physical ailments (headaches "don't feel good" )
  • Extreme over exaggerated emotional reactions
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Problems concentrating
  • Regression ex: becoming clingy, thumb-sucking, rocking

If your child appears to be suffering from these symptoms there is help. Not all circumstances and symptoms mean that your child has PTSD. Your child may have a hard time expressing themselves due to age or lack of communication. Anxiety or depression may be the cause as well. Seeking advice from a professional is the best thing to do.



There are many forms of treatment for the child who has been diagnosed with PTSD.

Talk therapy (such as cognitive behavioral therapy, family therapy, or psychotherapy) is an effective form of therapy for children with PTSD. CBT involves a therapist that works with the child to identify the thoughts that are causing distress, and introduces behavioral therapy techniques to alter the resulting behavior, such as relaxation techniques, exposure therapy and talk therapy.Play therapy is a good choice for those to young to verbalize their anxiety and concerns. Family therapy is essential to the child.Knowing that mom or dad is okay and can express their pain in a healthy way sometimes makes the transition easier for the child to feel comfortable with self-expression. And Psychotherapy can benefit the child by talk and sometimes medication if needed.  

Systematic Desensitization

I was in a car accident in 2005 that should have killed me. I was fearful of driving for at least 6 months after. Every time I heard screeching tires or someone inched out of an intersection I was on my brakes trying desperately to catch my breath. I became so fearful of getting into another accident that I only drove when I had to.

How did I overcome?

Systematic Desensitization. This treatment involves relaxation techniques to gradually become less sensitive to anxiety-provoking situations. I would imagine the event that caused my anxiety, thus being a car accident. During this process I engaged in relaxation techniques. As I became less anxiety filled at the thought of the accident, I would subject myself to the scene of the accident continuing the techniques learned to lessen anxiety. The process involves facing your fears and using adaptive coping skills to manage your anxiety.

All and all, I learned deep breathing exercises when I drove. I drove with my father in the passenger seat down the highway to the scene of the accident. I cried the entire time. But I faced my fears and overcame them. I’ll admit, I am still quite hyper vigilant about driving but I don’t hyperventilate at the thought of it. And when I have to drive to that spot, I begin deep breathing and I make it through.

Depending on the event, exposure therapy may be used to help your child overcome their fears.

As with any sickness, you depend on your instincts and your health team to make your child feel better. This is no different. The sooner you begin treatment for your child the better the outcome will be.

PTSD can last for months to years, so it is essential you listen, observe and support your child through this time.


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