PTSD: Why do some children experience persistent stress symptoms following trauma?

An image of a child and parents with a trained professional to illustrate a child with PTSD

The University of East Anglia has found that children are more likely to suffer from PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) if they are worried that their reaction to trauma is not ‘normal’.

The study assessed the differences in cases where children suffered from PTSD following a traumatic event, and those who did not.

The immediate response to trauma

Lead researcher Prof Richard Meiser-Stedman, from UEA’s Norwich Medical School, said: “Symptoms of PTSD can be a common reaction to trauma in children and teenagers. These can include distressing symptoms like intrusive memories, nightmares and flashbacks. Health professionals steer away from diagnosing it in the first month after a trauma because, rather than being a disorder, it’s a completely normal response.”

The study

Meiser-Stedman commented: “Many children who experience a severe traumatic stress response initially can go on to make a natural recovery without any professional support. But a minority go on to have persistent PTSD, which can carry on for much longer.”

He added: “We wanted to find out more about why some children have significant traumatic stress symptoms in the days and weeks after a trauma and while others do not, and importantly – why some recover well without treatment, while others go on to experience more persistent problems.”

The research team split the children’s reactions into three groups:

  • A ‘resilient’ group, who did not develop clinically significant stress symptoms;
  • A ‘recovery’ group, who initially displayed symptoms but none at a two month follow-up; and
  • A ‘persistent’ group, with significant symptoms at both time points they tested.

Why do some children experience PTSD and others do not?

Meiser-Stedman explained: “Interestingly the severity of physical injuries did not predict PTSD, nor did other life stressors, the amount of social support they could rely on, or self-blame. “The young people who didn’t recover well…perceived their symptoms as being a sign that something was seriously and permanently wrong with them, they didn’t trust other people as much, and they thought they couldn’t cope.”

He concluded: “In many cases, more deliberate attempts to process the trauma – for example, trying to think it through or talk it through with friends and family – were actually associated with worse PTSD. The children who didn’t recover well were those that reported spending a lot of time trying to make sense of their trauma. While some efforts to make sense of trauma might make sense, it seems that it is also possible for children to get ‘stuck’ and spend too long focusing on what happened and why.”

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