Dear Dr. Levister: I live in a low-income neighborhood where my two sons are exposed to a lot of violence. Both boys have nightmares. One wets the bed. Can children suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder? Y.S.
Dear Y.S.: Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a condition in which a person has long-lasting psychological symptoms after experiencing an extremely stressful event(s). About 30 percent of men and women who have spent time in war zones experience what we now call PTSD. In years past, a number of names were given to the emotional problems some soldiers had after returning from war, including: shell shock and combat fatigue. Children and teenagers can show signs of PTSD too. The loss of a friend or loved one, a violent experience, or exposure to a horrifying event may cause a child to develop post-traumatic stress disorder.
Researchers have found that the disorder is extremely common in young people who experience such violence as seeing a parent murdered or raped, witnessing a school shooting, or being the victim of sexual abuse. It is also very common in young people who are exposed to a lot of violence in their community.
Young children with PTSD may experience less specific fears, such as being afraid of strangers. They may have sleep problems, and they may lose previously learned skills, such as toilet training. In addition, they may act out parts of the distressing event in their play or daily interactions. Older children also may reenact parts of stressful events in play or drawings. Most people who have been through a very frightening event will have a noticeable reaction in the days and weeks just afterward. The diagnosis of PTSD is considered only if the symptoms last more than a month. The course of the disorder varies. Some people with PTSD recover within months, while others have symptoms that last much longer. Occasionally, the onset of symptoms can be delayed and may not show up until years after the stressful event. While it is unclear why PTSD develops in some people but not in others, at least two factors, early counseling and a high degree of family support, lowers the risk of PTSD in young people.
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