Children develop PTSD when they 'overthink' their trauma

March 26, 2019

Children are more likely to suffer Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) if they think their reaction to traumatic events is not 'normal' - according to new research from the University of East Anglia.

While most children recover well after a traumatic event, some go on to develop PTSD that may stay with them for months, years, or even into adulthood.

A new study, published today, reveals that children begin down this route when they have trouble processing their trauma and perceive their symptoms as being a sign that something is seriously wrong.

Lead researcher Prof Richard Meiser-Stedman, from UEA's Norwich Medical School, said: "Symptoms of PTSD can be a common reaction to trauma in children and teenagers. These can include distressing symptoms like intrusive memories, nightmares and flashbacks. Health professionals steer away from diagnosing it in the first month after a trauma because, rather than being a disorder, it's a completely normal response.

"Many children who experience a severe traumatic stress response initially can go on to make a natural recovery without any professional support. But a minority go on to have persistent PTSD, which can carry on for much longer.

"We wanted to find out more about why some children have significant traumatic stress symptoms in the days and weeks after a trauma and while others do not, and importantly - why some recover well without treatment, while others go on to experience more persistent problems."

The research team worked with over 200 children aged between eight and 17 who had attended a hospital emergency department following a one-off traumatic incident. These included events such as car crashes, assaults, dog attacks and other medical emergencies.

These young people were interviewed and assessed for PTSD between two and four weeks following their trauma, and again after two months.

The research team split the children's reactions into three groups - a 'resilient' group who did not develop clinically significant traumatic stress symptoms at either time point, a 'recovery' group who initially displayed symptoms but none at the two month follow up, and a 'persistent' group who had significant symptoms at both time points.

The team also examined whether social support and talking about the trauma with friends or family may be protective against persistent problems after two months. They also took into account factors including other life stressors and whether the child was experiencing on-going pain.

Dr Meiser-Stedman said: "We found that PTSD symptoms are fairly common early on - for example between two and four weeks following a trauma. These initial reactions are driven by high levels of fear and confusion during the trauma.

"But the majority of children and young people recovered naturally without any intervention.

"Interestingly the severity of physical injuries did not predict PTSD, nor did other life stressors, the amount of social support they could rely on, or self-blame.

"The young people who didn't recover well, and who were heading down a chronic PTSD track two months after their trauma, were much more likely to be thinking negatively about their trauma and their reactions - they were ruminating about what happened to them.

"They perceived their symptoms as being a sign that something was seriously and permanently wrong with them, they didn't trust other people as much, and they thought they couldn't cope.

"In many cases, more deliberate attempts to process the trauma - for example, trying to think it through or talk it through with friends and family - were actually associated with worse PTSD. The children who didn't recover well were those that reported spending a lot of time trying to make sense of their trauma. While some efforts to make sense of trauma might make sense, it seems that it is also possible for children to get 'stuck' and spend too long focusing on what happened and why.

"The young people who recovered well on the other hand seemed to be less bothered by their reactions, and paid them less attention."
-end-
The project was funded by the Medical Research Council, and led by researchers at UEA and the University of Cambridge. It was carried out in collaboration with Macquarie University in Australia, Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust, Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge, Kings College London and the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough NHS Foundation Trust.

'A core role for cognitive process in the acute onset and maintenance of post-traumatic stress in children and adolescents' is published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry on March 26, 2019.

University of East Anglia

Related PTSD Articles from Brightsurf:

'Brain fog' following COVID-19 recovery may indicate PTSD
A new report suggests that lingering ''brain fog'' and other neurological symptoms after COVID -19 recovery may be due to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), an effect observed in past human coronavirus outbreaks such as SARS and MERS.

PTSD may double risk of dementia
People who have experienced post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are up to twice as likely to develop dementia later in life, according to a new study by UCL researchers, published in the British Journal of Psychiatry.

How building features impact veterans with PTSD
The built environment, where someone lives (private) or works (public), influences a person's daily life and can help, or hinder, their mental health.

Work-related PTSD in nurses
A recent Journal of Clinical Nursing analysis of published studies examined the prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among nurses and identified factors associated with work-related PTSD among nurses.

PTSD and moral injury linked to pregnancy complications
Elevated symptoms of PTSD and moral injury can lead to pregnancy complications, found a Veterans Affairs study of women military veterans.

Early treatment for PTSD after a disaster has lasting effects
In 1988, a 6.9 magnitude earthquake struck near the northern Armenian city of Spitak.

Cyberbullying Linked to Increased Depression and PTSD
Cyberbullying had the impact of amplifying symptoms of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder in young people who were inpatients at an adolescent psychiatric hospital, according to a new study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry.

Psychedelic drugs could help treat PTSD
Clinical trials suggest treatment that involves psychedelics can be more effective than psychotherapy alone.

Which is more effective for treating PTSD: Medication, or psychotherapy?
A systematic review and meta-analysis led by Jeffrey Sonis, MD, MPH, of the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, finds there is insufficient evidence at present to answer that question.

Cannabis could help alleviate depression and suicidality among people with PTSD
Cannabis may be helping Canadians cope with the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), new research suggests.

Read More: PTSD News and PTSD Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.