What Causes PTSD in Children?


Childhood trauma springs from the scary, painful, and yucky bits of childhood. Learn some of the common causes of trauma from Jolene Philo.

When adults think about what causes PTSD in children, most have an easy time coming up with a short list. Physical, sexual, and verbal abuse make the list. So do natural disasters like tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes. Unexpected events like car accidents and fires usually make the list. Most people add violent events such as war, terrorist attacks, and kidnapping. Neglect, hunger, homelessness, and poverty and other environments of deprivation may be included.

Adults think of those items because they can be traumatic to anyone of any age. However, many other situations or events that adults consider to be benign can cause PTSD in children. Childhood trauma springs from the scary, painful, and yucky bits of childhood.

Causes of PTSD in Children

When we think of what causes PTSD in children, it’s essential to view life events through child-colored glasses. Those glasses make us small and powerless. At the same time, the adults in our lives become large and all-powerful. From that vantage point, the list of what can be scary, painful, and yucky grows quickly and looks something like this.

  • Physical, sexual, or emotional abuse
  • Observing a loved one being abused
  • Becoming a victim of bullying
  • Witnessing violence at home, at school, or in the community
  • Watching media accounts of traumatic events
  • Experiencing a devastating illness or death
  • Undergoing frequent family moves or repeated foster care placements
  • Experiencing homelessness
  • Poverty and racism
  • Surviving car or plane accidents
  • Experiencing falls or athletic injuries
  • Living through earthquakes, floods, severe storms, fires, or other natural disasters
  • Witnessing war or terrorism
  • Living as a war refugee
  • Experiencing medical trauma
  • Adoption
  • Moving
  • Divorce

Causes of PTSD in Babies

For babies, the smallest and most dependent humans, other items must be added to the list, also.

  • Trauma experienced by pregnant mothers
  • A difficult birth
  • Leaving the mother’s warm, dark, enclosing womb and entering a cold, brightly lit, roomy delivery room after an uneventful birth
  • Washing, weighing, and measuring the infant before allowing mother and baby skin-to-skin time
  • Invasive medical procedures and surgery, including circumcision
  • Abrupt separation from the birth mother
  • Colic and other digestive issues like reflux
  • Painful and reoccurring illnesses and conditions such as ear infections and diaper rash
  • Neglect of basic needs including hunger, physical and emotional comfort, touch, and bonding time with the caregiver

9 PTSD Risk Factors for Children

Learning about all the possible causes of childhood PTSD can be alarming. Almost every child has experienced a few things found on the above lists. The good news is that most children don’t develop PTSD after experiencing traumatic events. Research is being conducted to discover why some children are more resilient than others. But mental health care professionals already know some factors exist that increase the risk of developing PTSD.

  1. Prior history of traumatic events. Children exposed to frequent trauma are more likely to develop PTSD.
  2. The type of traumatic event. Witnessing violent events or the abuse of parents are more traumatic to kids than natural disasters.
  3. The reaction of parents and caregivers. Children are more likely to be impacted by a trauma if their parents show a great deal of distress about what happened.
  4. The relationship of the child to the perpetrator of the event. Abuse by people close to the child results in PTSD more than abuse by a stranger.
  5. The child’s mental health history. A child already diagnosed with a mental condition is at greater risk of developing PTSD after a trauma.
  6. The child’s temperament. PTSD is more likely to develop in children with difficult personalities or who display antisocial behavior.
  7. The age when the trauma occurs. The earlier the trauma, the greater the risk of PTSD.
  8. Family history. Children of parents who have PTSD are more likely to develop PTSD.
  9. Certain gene variations increase the risk of developing PTSD. Also, two times as many girls as boys are diagnosed with PTSD.

PTSD in Children Is Not Hopeless

Once again, learning about the many causes of trauma in children can be alarming. But remember that not every child who is traumatized develops PTSD. In fact, parents and professionals can employ many techniques to help children process traumatic events and prevent PTSD. And children who do develop PTSD can receive treatment and therapy to help them heal and cope. So come back for future posts to learn more about PTSD in children, including how to prevent and treat it. Until then, stay hopeful!

Written by: Jolene Philo


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