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Traumatic Exposure and PTSD in Children

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Updated October 29, 2008

The consequences of being exposed to a traumatic event including PTSD are more commonly studied among adults; however, traumatic exposure and symptoms of PTSD in children can also occur. Yet, less is known about the rates of traumatic exposure and PTSD in children.

To address this issue, researchers at the Center for Developmental Epidemiology in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Duke University Medical Center looked at rates of traumatic exposure and the experience of PTSD symptoms in a large sample of children under the age of 16 from western North Carolina.

Rates of Traumatic Exposure in Children

They found that a large number of children had been exposed to traumatic events before the age of 16. Approximately 68% of children had direct or indirect exposure to a traumatic event before the age of 16. The following events were the most commonly identified:

  • Witnessing a traumatic event (23.7%)

  • Learning about a traumatic event (21.4%)

  • Violent death of a sibling or peer (14.5%)

  • Being involved in a serious accident

  • Being exposed to a natural disaster (11.1%)

  • Being diagnosed with a physical illness (11%)

  • Experience of sexual abuse (10.9%)

In addition, approximately 30% of children had experienced only one traumatic event and 37% had experienced multiple events.

Rates of PTSD and PTSD Symptoms in Children

PTSD was rare in this group of children. Only 6 children (0.5%) had a diagnosis of PTSD. However, even though a person does not have a diagnosis of PTSD, he or she may still experience symptoms of PTSD following exposure to a traumatic event. The researchers found that around 9% of children had distressing memories about a previous traumatic event and 2% had multiple symptoms of PTSD (but not a diagnosis of PTSD).

Risk for PTSD Symptoms

The researchers also examined a number of factors that may increase the likelihood that a child develops PTSD symptoms following the experience of a traumatic event. They found that age (being older), having another anxiety disorder, and multiple traumatic experiences increased the likelihood that a child would develop PTSD symptoms after a traumatic event.

Other Negative Consequences of Childhood Trauma

Besides PTSD symptoms, children exposed to a traumatic event before the age of 16 had almost twice the number of other psychiatric disorders than children without a history of trauma. These other psychiatric disorders included mood disorders such as depression and anxiety disorders like generalized anxiety disorder and social anxiety disorder.

How Can We Protect Our Children?

The rates of traumatic exposure in children found in this study are shocking, and their findings show that children are particularly vulnerable for a number of negative consequences stemming from traumatic exposure. Parents can play a major role in helping their children cope with stressful life events, thereby reducing their risk for developing PTSD symptoms or other psychiatric conditions. The Sidran Institute, a nonprofit organization that provides resources on trauma and PTSD, provides some helpful tips for how parents can help their children cope with and understand a traumatic event.

Source:

Copeland, W.E., Keeler, G., Angold, A., & Costello, E.J. (2007). Traumatic events and posttraumatic stress in childhood. Archives of General Psychiatry, 64, 577-584.

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