How to Help Children with PTSD

In my last article, I discussed the 10 signs of Narcissistic Abuse in children. With that abuse comes Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In this post I will be discussing what PTSD looks like in children, what could be a cause, and triggers. Lastly, I will focus on skills to help your child understand, and coping strategies that you can implement immediately.

What is PTSD?

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is most commonly associated with soldiers returning from war zones. The Mayo Clinic describes PTSD as a mental health condition triggered by a terrifying event. However, this condition is not isolated strictly to veterans. In Healing from Trauma: A Survivor’s Guide to Understanding Your Symptoms and Reclaiming Your Life, a trigger is described as “anything that sets you off emotionally and activates memories of your trauma. It’s particular to you and what your experience has been. [Once] triggered, we revert to the feelings and behaviors we had in the traumatizing situation.” A traumatic event can be anything relevant to the person in question. To a child, anything from witnessing domestic violence to a divorce or death can be considered a traumatic event. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is simply that; severe stress in a person that comes after a traumatic event.

What does it look like in children?

PTSD in children comes out in many different ways. The main symptoms listed for adults is;

  • high blood pressure due to re-experiencing the event
  • nightmares
  • frightening thoughts
  • anxiety over places and objects that remind you of the event
  • emotionally numb or disconnected
  • losing interest in things you once enjoyed
  • feeling tense or “on edge”
  • easily started or fearful
  • difficulty sleeping
  • angry outbursts

These signs will come out in children as well. Ask yourself, Does your kid seem distant, unamused, and/or anxious? Are they having more nightmares than usual? Do they seem angrier than normal? Do I have a “doom and gloom” child? If you can answer yes to one or all of these questions, your child is suffering from PTSD.

I want to point out the differences between stress and anxiety. If a child is stressed, they;

  • Can pinpoint the situation that is causing stress
  • Have minor depression, sleeplessness, and anger
  • Can have digestive problems (stomach aches, diarrhea, constipation)
  • Become more susceptible to the flu

With anxiety, they;

  • Unaware of the point of anxiety
  • Fearful and dread every day
  • Panic attacks
  • Phobias of certain events and situations

I hate to say this, but stress is normal. Anxiety, however, is unhealthy and can become chronic. Think of your child’s behavior lately and see which category he falls under. But don’t try to find something that isn’t there. My children went through hell and back over the last 10 months. I have one that is experiencing some stress, another that is completely broken with anxiety, and my baby came out unscathed (thank God!). Every child handles life differently and it is ok (fantastic, even) if they are unfazed by a bad situation.

What causes it?

Like I said, PTSD is triggered by any number of events and depend solely on the person it effects. With children, they are so sensitive to adult situations that they are exposed to, anything can be considered a traumatic event. Life really is hard, and if you’re new to “life” it can also be very scary.

Some of the more typical scenarios that cause PTSD in both adults and children include;

  • death of an immediate family member (whether witnessed or learned afterward)
  • an accident (with or without bodily harm, usually involving a car)
  • life threatening event (war, rape, burglary, mugging, attempted murder)
  • natural disaster (hurricanes, tornados, fires, earthquakes)
  • severe, life changing events (divorce, illness, move, job loss)

I’m sure you’re reading this list and realizing that most of these scenarios are unavoidable. So how do you deal with it? Be as open and honest as you can. Listen to your child and explain as best you can with age appropriate information. Help them understand that death is not a scary thing. Accidents happen and can be moved on from. That you’re happy they are ok and you can always buy new things.

But most importantly, respect your child’s feelings. They have the right to be angry, hurt, scared, and offended. What’s not acceptable is expressing it in hurtful and unhealthy way. Help your child learn the difference. As adults, we need to remember that what might be nothing to us, is everything to the child. Help them work through their feelings. 

What are triggers?

Triggers can be an every day thing, or pop up randomly years down the road. They could be obvious, like riding in a car after a car accident, or obscure, like feeling anxious in a relationship because of infidelity or abuse. It is important to know your triggers and work through them through therapy and meditation. How do you know if you’re experiencing a trigger? Angry outbursts and anxiety are the easiest signs to track triggers for PTSD.

If your child has a trigger, record the situation and all of the events or objects surrounding it. Find the pattern. Once you find the pattern, talk with your child’s counselor about your findings. Find a solution to work through the triggers that are unavoidable, like cars or relationships.

What can you do now?

The best way to handle a panic attack or PTSD trigger is to practice mindfulness. Mindfulness is ignoring outside influences and focusing on what is right in front of you. Some of my favorite tactics to use with my kids is;

  • Grounding – not the punishment, but make them focus on the gravity holding them to the ground. Make them aware of the weight of their own body and their place on this earth. They take up space and they are here for a reason.
  • Senses – Make them list 5 things for each of the senses right around them. 5 things they can touch, feel, taste, smell, hear, and see.
  • Have a blanket or stuffed animal handy to wrap them in or have them cuddle. Make them focus on the textures and feel the weight of the blanket around them.
  • Music – let them listen to their favorite song and focus on the melody and sounds.
  • Ice cubes – This one is fun and something I use on myself at times. Give them an Ice cube and let them melt it in their (freshly washed) hands. Focus on the cold and wet sensations. Once they feel better (or their hands are too cold) let them eat it or throw it away. **Please be safe with younger children. You can’t really choke on an ice cube but you can choke and it is really unpleasant. You can also let them play with play dough or a stress ball to focus their attention into their hands.
  • Hugs – hugging your child and reminding them that they are safe and loved will help them tremendously! Tell them to focus on your heart beat and remind them that they came from there and your heart is their home.

Remember to breath

If you want your child to be active in their mindfulness, I found a Coping Strategies Notebook printable. ($10, but the resources are worth the money). This printable has the option of being black and white or coloring pages. The children can pick and choose their favorite strategies and write notes of why they like it and how it helps them. Can’t spend the money right now? You can make a fortune teller (YouTube link) and write different coping strategies on the inside space.

Learning coping skills is a tool that everyone should have to combat stress, anxiety, and anger. Teaching your kids early how to deal with these feelings properly is most important. Think of how many adults you know that have no idea how to handle their emotions and stressful situations. Don’t let your child grow up to be that.

While we need to remember that we are raising children to become adults in this world, we also need to remember that they are still kids. They will have angry outbursts and throw tantrums. If they have been through a traumatic experience, these behaviors will be worse and more frequent. That is how children cope. By getting angry at them, we are lowering ourselves to that behavior and doing them a disservice. Hug your kids. Understand why they are yelling rather than focus on the fact that they are yelling.

And breath! You are doing an amazing job with the crappy situation you have been dealt. You will get through this and you and your children will be better for it! (And try some of those coping skills yourself).

What’s the next step?

Like, follow, and share this post. Help others that might be going through PTSD with their children.

I have become a huge advocate for counseling! If you feel that a situation in your family might be a traumatic situation, preemptively strike that shit! Therapy will not hurt your children, or you! I understand not everyone has the access to a therapist. Talk with someone you trust, and find your child an adult they can talk to without fear of getting in trouble for what they say. Everyone needs a safe place and their “person.”

If you need help finding resources, you can look to my Pinterest Page under Parenting Tips and Narcissistic Abuse Quotes. You can always write a comment or email me for more information.

I’d love to hear your feedback!