The Youngest Victims: Kids and PTSD After a Car Accident
Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is a fairly common reaction to a car crash, especially if the crash was severe or involved serious injuries or deaths. Fears of dying, loss of loved ones, or long, painful recuperations can imprint our brains with stress reactions that are significantly outside the norm.
With children, it can be even worse. They may be so young that they have no frame of reference for the trauma they have suffered. A crash that may be only mildly upsetting to an adult can be severely disturbing to a child. Worse than that, adults may not recognize PTSD in children. Sometimes it can take kids years to recover, according to a new study released in the UK.
Researchers studied children aged 2 to 10 from 71 families who ended up in an emergency room after a car crash during 2004 and 2005. The families were evaluated for PTSD several times after the accident, up to three years later. The researchers discovered that, in children aged 8 and older, 10 to 30 percent of those who had been in crashes suffered from PTSD.
While only a small percentage endured serious injuries—7 percent had broken bones—the 17 percent showing signs of PTSD three years later generally had parents who were experiencing problems. The parents often did not notice their child’s ongoing difficulties. Lead author of the study Dr. Richard Meiser-Stedman of the University of East Anglia’s Norwich Medical School commented by email, “Parents may not spot the signs of PTSD for the same reasons that parents may miss many mental health difficulties, particularly emotional disorders like anxiety and depression. Poor mental health may often be a very private experience, and children find it difficult to describe their thoughts and feelings.”
- Any unexpected, disturbing or intrusive thoughts that the child expresses long after an accident can often be a symptom of PTSD.
- Physical reactions. Complaints of stomachaches, headaches, and other physical ailments that continue long after the crash express pain that is very real to the child and may well be caused by PTSD.
- Children old enough to remember trauma sometimes deny it ever happened. Such distressing mental wounds can turn into PTSD. These children need treatment, because covering up the pain can turn into something much worse that has long-lasting effects.
- Difficulty concentrating. If the child is suffering from PTSD, the traumatic response can be misdiagnosed as ADHD (attention deficit hyperactive disorder). In such cases, the child responds with fear to triggering events that remind them of the accident.
- Startling easily. Children may jump or show fear upon hearing loud noises or when experiencing situations that remind them of the trauma. They may flinch when an adult tries to touch them.
- Seeing no future. In 1976, 26 children who were buried alive became the subject of a book. When the children were asked what they wanted to be when they grew up, many consistently responded that they didn’t think about such things, as they expected to die young.
- Irritability, impulsiveness, and acting self-destructively. Kids who think they have no futures often respond by making less-than-safe choices, thinking, what’s the point of acting responsibly? They believe they have no future.
- Significant sadness, depression, or hopelessness. Some kids have described what they are feeling as “impending doom.” Such a remark fits with the “seeing no future” aspect of PTSD.
Treatment for PTSD in children can be highly effective. Such treatment usually involves a great deal of talk therapy, play therapy, and teaching them coping skills. If you believe your child is suffering, please do not hesitate to obtain help for them.
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