How PTSD Presents Itself in Children and Adolescents

By Amanda Ronan

Young girl with PTSD looks scared and covers ears with hands

So many times you turn on the news and see a new traumatic event. Due to major events, from hurricanes to school shootings, as well as personal situations, some of our nation’s youngest citizens are at risk for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

PTSD can be caused by experiencing or witnessing a terrifying event. Since “terrifying” means different things to different people, PTSD can be overlooked in young people, sometimes being passed off as a “phase” or even as “typical teenager behavior.” But PTSD is a very real issue for children and adolescents; let’s take a look at how the disorder can impact young people.

PTSD Statistics

When you look into the cases seen by Child Protective Services (CPS) in the United States, it is no wonder many children often feel terrified. Of the substantiated cases that were looked into by CPS:

  • More than 78 percent have been physically or emotionally neglected
  • More than 17 percent have been physically abused
  • Nearly 10 percent have been sexually abused

The reports by the National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence paint a similar picture. Over 60% of the children in the sample group from infancy to age seventeen experienced or witnessed victimization in the past year. Specifically:

  • Almost half experienced physical assault
  • 1 in 10 experienced child maltreatment
  • Over 6% had experienced sexual victimization
  • More than one-quarter had witnessed domestic or community violence

Significant events that could cause child/adolescent PTSD are either experiencing or witnessing:

  • Sexual abuse or violence
  • Physical abuse
  • Natural disasters, such as fires, hurricanes or floods
  • Violent crimes such as kidnapping or school shootings
  • Motor vehicle accidents

PTSD in Children

Children who have PTSD may present the disorder in a number of ways, including, but not limited to worry, sadness and fears about death. PTSD can lead or nightmares, flashbacks and intrusive memories about the triggering event.

Some children may try to forget the memory in order to cope. Others may display PTSD through play. Posttraumatic play or reenactment happens when the child retells the trauma through story, pictures or acting. This behavior usually does not relieve the anxiety, and instead potentially becoming compulsive.

PTSD in Adolescents

Older children with PTSD may display more “adult-like” symptoms, such as:

  • Loss of interest in previously-enjoyed activities
  • Angry outbursts
  • Irritability
  • Reckless behavior
  • Headaches and stomachaches
  • Feeling as though the trauma is happening again
  • Sadness
  • Guilt
  • Low self-esteem
  • Inability to trust others

Adolescents who are victims of sexual abuse are likely to display fear, anxiety, depression, sexually inappropriate behavior and self-destructive behaviors.

Academically, untreated PTSD in adolescents can lead to problems in school like lower GPA, increased dropout rates and more suspensions and expulsions.

If you feel moved to take action from hearing about how trauma affects young people, a degree in mental health, behavioral science or counseling might be the right fit for you. One way to explore this field is through a degree program within the Grand Canyon University College of Humanities and Social Sciences. Consider the Bachelor of Science in Behavioral Health Science with an Emphasis in Trauma, Master of Science in Mental Health and Wellness or Master of Science in Professional Counseling with an Emphasis in Childhood and Adolescence Disorders degrees from our diverse and individualized college.

To learn more about how Grand Canyon University’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences provides students with an education that can be leveraged to serve others in need, visit our website or click the Request More Information Button on this page.


  • “Children’s Exposure to Violence: A Comprehensive National Survey.” U.S. Department of Justice. Retrieved from
  • “Child Maltreatment: 2012.” U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. Retrieved from

More About Amanda:

Amanda Ronan is a writer and editor focused on education. She was a classroom teacher for nearly a decade. Now she spends her time writing for students, teachers and parents. Amanda also writes curriculum for entrepreneurial learning and financial literacy programs. Amanda lives in Austin where she enjoys splashing in creeks with her husband and two dogs, swaying in a hammock on the porch and sampling all the breakfast tacos the city has to offer.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University.

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