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Pediatric Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

What is Post-traumatic Stress Disorder?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is the name for the ongoing reaction and stress following exposure to a traumatic event. PTSD can occur either when a child or teen has been personally harmed or when he or she has witnessed another person being harmed or injured. Some of the types of violent or traumatic events that can cause a child or teen to develop PTSD include physical or sexual abuse, car accidents, natural disasters, assault, and exposure to chronic violence, or being diagnosed with a life-threatening illness. A child may develop PTSD if he or she was physically close to the event, if the event was severe, or if the event was repeated many times. Additionally, a child or teen may develop PTSD if they received little or no positive comfort and support from his or her family or loved ones after the traumatic event. A child or teen with PTSD may develop a number of ongoing and upsetting symptoms that last for more than one month. It is important to note that a majority of children and teens who experience or witness a trauma do not develop PTSD.

What are the symptoms of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder?

These are some of the most common symptoms of PTSD in children:

  • Sleep disturbances including fear of sleep, nightmares, or bedwetting
  • Extreme emotional reactions when reminded of the traumatic event
  • Crying and depressed feelings
  • Being easily startled or jumpy
  • Loss of interest in things they used to enjoy
  • Detachment from others
  • General lack of response to others
  • Bad tempered, aggressive, or even violent behavior
  • Avoiding certain places or situations that bring back memories of the event
  • Flashbacks or disturbing images of the traumatic event
  • Re-creating and re-living the traumatic event through talk or play
  • Problems concentrating or with attention
  • Behaviors that they should have grown out of (for example, sucking their thumb, or wanting to sleep with a parent or sibling)

How is Post-traumatic Stress Disorder Diagnosed?

At Children’s National, child psychologists, psychiatrists, and other mental health professionals may interview the child or teen and his or her parents. We may have the patient and family fill out questionnaires about different aspects of the child’s or teen’s life, including physical health concerns, difficulties at school, or behavior with friends and family.

Treatment for Post-traumatic Stress Disorder

Following a full assessment, a member of the Children’s National care team will discuss treatment options with the child or teen and his or her family. Cognitive behavioral treatment (CBT) is effective in treating PTSD. Most studies show that there are no medicines that are effective in treating PTSD. CBT includes helping children and teens think about the trauma in a new way that promotes coping and rebuilding a strong sense of self. Gradually, children and teens are helped to talk and think about the trauma in order to reduce anxiety. They may be taught different ways to relax, and may also learn new sleep habits. Parents play a strong role the treatment of children and teens in PTSD, since support from others is so important.

Children's Team

Children's Team


Erin Sadler

Erin Sadler

Co-Director, Mood Disorders Program
Director, CPP Services
Ayman Saleh

Ayman Saleh

Medical Director, Ambulatory Psychiatry and Takoma Theatre Outpatient Clinic
Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist
Children's National Hospital

Tracy Vozar

Clinical Director, Perinatal Behavioral Health


Anxiety Disorders Program

The Anxiety Disorders Program at Children's National Hospital is a specialized treatment clinic devoted to carefully assessing and effectively treating a wide range of anxiety disorders common among children and adolescents.

Psychology and Behavioral Health

In the Division of Psychology and Behavioral Health, our child psychologists and other mental health professionals work exclusively with children and teens, emphasizing patient and family-focused care.

Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences

Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Children’s National offers assessment, diagnosis and care for children and teens with behavioral, emotional and developmental disorders.

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