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Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is something we often ascribe to war veterans, but symptoms show up in anyone who has experienced severe trauma. PTSD can be described as a mental disorder that is triggered by a traumatic event, seen or experienced. Symptoms can include flashbacks, night terrors, anxiety, depression, or confusion.

Trauma comes in many forms. Children who have grown up in homes where a family member has a substance abuse problem can experience some of the following stressors:

  • Anger when their loved one is using again.
  • Dealing with injuries or overdoses requiring medical help, as a result of their loved one’s addiction.
  • Dealing with the law when serious events or altercations happen.
  • Covering for the substance abuser (at work or school).
  • Financial problems as a result of the substance abuse.
  • Being overcome by fear over the future.
  • Feeling unable, but required to fix their loved one.

These stressors can cause lasting trauma. Children raised in homes that have substance abuse will experience emotional trauma that lasts. They won’t know what a supportive and loving family looks like, nor will they know how to live without drama and emotional pain. Having the truth manipulated to them will make them unable to understand what is happening and deal with it appropriately.

Children in homes with substance abuse are bound to secrecy about what is going on in the home. There is often abuse – physical or verbal – that they will witness or experience themselves. Their needs will often be ignored, and they will be expected to help care for parents who are using.

These things cause lasting damage.

There are many people in the world today who do not realize that their anxiety, depression, and trust issues are resulting from childhood trauma because of a substance-abusing loved one. PTSD is far more common in teens and children than most people want to believe. However, a significant number of children have experienced severe trauma that later developed into PTSD.

Before you can help a teen or child with undiagnosed PTSD, you must understand the symptoms. Some symptoms appear in children of all ages, such as hypervigilance, emotional discomfort when the original trauma is brought up, and avoidance of anything that brings the memory of that event to mind. They also experience nightmares or other sleep problems. The following symptoms are more likely to appear in children over the age of 3:

  1. Flashbacks. Children who can express themselves verbally may start to recount to you intrusive and unexpected thoughts of the original trauma. These thoughts are normal for the first few months after a traumatic event has occurred. However, if these flashbacks linger it could be a symptom of PTSD.
  2. Physical Reactions. Older children may complain of stomach aches, headaches, or other vague illnesses when reminded of their trauma. Even though the pain may feel very real to the child, there is no diagnosable cause. Adults may be too quick to dismiss the child’s complaints when they may be a very real symptom of PTSD.
  3. Denial. Occasionally a child who is old enough to remember a traumatic event clearly will adamantly deny that it ever happened. They ‘stuff’ their feelings deep down, but left untreated they can develop into severe PTSD. If you know a child who is exhibiting this symptom, get them treatment as soon as possible.
  4. Concentration difficulties. PTSD in children is often misdiagnosed as an attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD). The symptoms that look like ADHD are a response to trauma triggers. The fear they feel presses them to move to something that feels safer; this becomes a cycle every time they encounter something that triggers them.
  5. Easily Startled. Children may become skittish, or jump when they hear loud noises, depending on the trauma they experience. For example, in a situation of abuse, a child may flinch when an adult’s hand nears them.
  6. Lack of dreams for their future. Children who have come close to death may not dream of their future because they expect to die young.
  7. Self-Destructive. Kids with PTSD don’t think they will live long, so they don’t see the point in making a decision that benefits their future. They don’t think through long-term ramifications of their decisions.
  8. Depression, sadness, and/or hopelessness. This mindset is again rooted in their sense of a lack of future. They have an “impending sense of doom” which is the perfect mindset for sadness and hopelessness to grow.

Of course, children who do not have PTSD can exhibit these symptoms as well, so it can be difficult to tell if a child is struggling with PTSD. It is important to assess if the child has experienced a traumatic event, even in the distant past. Note how long the symptoms have persisted; PTSD patients will experience symptom much longer. If you suspect a child has been through a trauma, watch to see if they exhibit more than one of the symptoms. As well, you should be aware if the child’s behavior is wildly different than other kids in their age group.

There are many very effective treatments for PTSD. If you or a loved one has been through a trauma, by addiction or otherwise, know that there is hope! Find a support group or seek professional help.