Recognizing and Supporting Your Child Through PTSD

November 9, 2021

Following a sexual assault, your child will display a range of behaviors and emotions. In some cases, these behaviors are symptoms of a broader diagnosis: post-traumatic stress disorder, also known as PTSD. 

PTSD is a condition of mental and emotional stress in someone who experienced trauma themselves, someone who witnessed it firsthand, or someone who had it happen to someone they love. Though it is often associated with combat veterans, PTSD can happen to any survivor of trauma. In fact, it’s more common than you might think. It is estimated that 1 in 11 people will be diagnosed with PTSD at some point in their lives.

Whether this statistic is disheartening or reassuring, the first step in supporting your child survivor through PTSD is knowing what to look for so that the condition can be properly diagnosed and treated. 

There are four categories of symptoms related to PTSD. These include:

Re-experiencing symptoms: Also called intrusive symptoms, these symptoms are characterized by intrusive thoughts of the initial trauma and aftermath. Symptoms include intense flashbacks and accompanying physical reactions like sweating, shaking, and increased heart rate. These symptoms can be triggered by words, people, events, or memories that might seemingly be benign but that remind the survivor of the trauma that they experienced.

Avoidance symptoms: Avoidance symptoms are the body’s way of avoiding the re-experiencing symptoms described above. In an attempt to avoid reliving a trauma, a survivor may end up avoiding people, places, events, buildings, or conversations that could trigger painful memories of the assault.

Arousal and reactivity symptoms: These symptoms are marked by a prolonged and more permanent change in a survivor’s disposition. Whereas re-experiencing symptoms are short-lived and brief, arousal and reactivity symptoms are indicated by ongoing and persistent anger, violent outbursts, and irritability. 

Cognition and mood symptoms: Cognition and mood symptoms can warp a survivor’s memory of the trauma, belief about themselves, and their entire identity. These symptoms are indicated by intense feelings of shame, blame, and guilt that the survivor directs at themselves. A survivor with cognition and mood symptoms of PTSD may seem more withdrawn or may have difficulty feeling positive emotions like they once did.

If you suspect that your child survivor is demonstrating one or more of these categories of symptoms, it is important that you engage a trauma-informed psychiatrist or psychologist for an evaluation. Consider also engaging a counselor to help you process and move through your own experience of the trauma. With the right help, you, your child, and your family can emerge from PTSD on the other side.

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