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Kids Can Get 'Stuck' on Traumatic Event, Leading to PTSD

THURSDAY, March 28, 2019 (HealthDay News) -- The risk of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among children and teens is higher if they think their response to a traumatic event is abnormal, a new study indicates.

Most kids fully recover after a traumatic event, such as a car accident. But some develop PTSD that may endure for months, years or even into adulthood, according to researchers at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom.

"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," said lead researcher Richard Meiser-Stedman, a medical school professor.

"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," Meiser-Stedman explained.

The study included more than 200 children, aged 8 to 17, treated at a hospital emergency department after traumatic incidents, such as car crashes, assaults and dog attacks.

The children were interviewed and assessed for PTSD between two and four weeks after the incident, and again after two months.

"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," Meiser-Stedman said.

Most of the patients recovered naturally without any intervention, the investigators found.

"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," Meiser-Stedman said in a university news release.

"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," he explained.

"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," Meiser-Stedman added.

"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," he said.

"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," he suggested.

The study authors concluded that kids who recovered well seemed to be less bothered by their reactions, and paid less attention to them.

The study was published online March 25 in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.

More information

The U.S. National Center for PTSD has more on PTSD in children and teens.

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