So how can you tell if a child has PTSD? Here are some of the typical signs and symptoms of PTSD in children:
- A child seems fidgety or easily distracted
- Rapid pulse or high resting heartbeat
- A child “zones out” on occasion or becomes unresponsive
- They startle easily
- Appears irrationally afraid of everyday objects or certain situations
- Flinching, ducking, or hiding in response to normal situations and/or experiences
- The sudden onset of fears or phobias
- Separation anxiety or excessive clinginess
- Repeatedly asking the same questions or seeking reassurance about a stressful situation (“Are there going to be any tornadoes today, Mommy?”)
- Re-enacting traumatic events through play (as a way of processing or gaining mastery over an experience)
- Experiencing recurrent nightmares
Traumatic stress symptoms in children often resemble disorders such as ADHD. In fact, children with trauma histories are often misdiagnosed as having ADHD, because traumatic stress symptoms can result in nearly identical behavior. A child has trouble concentrating or seems easily distracted because their mind is being occupied thinking about potential threats, making it difficult to focus on other things. They seem fidgety and restless, because their system is on “high alert” so to speak, which is easily interpreted as hyperactivity. “Freezing” in fear in response to an environmental trigger is easily misinterpreted as defiance or distractedness by teachers.
Of course, these symptoms could be caused by any number of things. It’s also important to remember that all these symptoms can be typical reactions to stress, and stress symptoms are not necessarily the same thing as PTSD symptoms. In the immediate aftermath of a frightening experience, it’s normal for children to exhibit many of these behaviors, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to develop PTSD. It’s only when these symptoms persist past the typical period of shock and recovery that they begin to indicate a disorder.