Treating PTSD


Adoptive Families Association of BC
Special Needs Database

Although some children show a natural remission in PTSD symptoms over a period of a few months, a significant number of children continue to exhibit symptoms for years if untreated. Few treatment studies have examined which treatments are most effective for children and adolescents. A review of the adult treatment studies of PTSD shows that Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is the most effective approach. CBT for children generally includes the child directly discussing the traumatic event, anxiety management techniques such as relaxation and assertiveness training, and correction of inaccurate or distorted trauma-related thoughts.

Although there is some controversy regarding exposing children to the events that scare them, exposure-based treatments seem to be most relevant when memories or reminders of the trauma distress the child. Children can be exposed gradually and taught relaxation so that they can learn to relax while recalling their experiences. Through this procedure, they learn that they do not have to be afraid of their memories. CBT also involves challenging children’s false beliefs such as, “The world is totally unsafe.” The majority of studies have found that it is safe and effective to use CBT for children with PTSD.

CBT is often accompanied by psycho-education and parental involvement. Psycho-education is education about PTSD symptoms and their effects. It is as important for parents and caregivers to understand the effects of PTSD as it is for children. Research shows that the better parents cope with the trauma, and the more they support their children, the better their children will function. Therefore, it is important for parents to seek treatment for themselves in order to develop the necessary coping skills that will help their children.

Several other types of therapy have been suggested for PTSD in children and adolescents. Play therapy can be used to treat young children with PTSD who are not able to deal with the trauma more directly. The therapist uses games, drawings, and other techniques to help the children process their traumatic memories. Another therapy, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), combines cognitive therapy with directed eye movements. While EMDR has been shown to be effective in treating both children and adults with PTSD, studies indicate that it is the cognitive intervention rather than the eye movements that accounts for the change. Medications have also been prescribed for some children with PTSD. However, due to the lack of research in this area, it is too early to evaluate the effectiveness of medication therapy.

Finally, specialized interventions may be necessary for children exhibiting particularly problematic behaviors or PTSD symptoms. For example, a specialized intervention might be required for inappropriate sexual behavior or extreme behavioral problems.

Source: PTSD in Children and Adolescents: The National Center for PTSD Fact Sheet (US).