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Understanding Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Kids After an Auto Accident

Understanding Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Kids After an Auto Accident

The stress kids experience today can be outright terrifying. Just days ago, a six-year-old child purposely shot his teacher in a Virginia elementary school. Panicked classmates rushed to escape the scene as the wounded educator collapsed onto the floor. Fortunately, she’s recovering in a nearby hospital, but imagine the frightening impact on the children who witnessed this shocking incident unfold, not to mention the other kids inside the school who were forced into lockdown. One fifth grader told a reporter she was worried the shooter, “still had the gun and he was going to come to my house.” She also stated she was having difficulty sleeping and experiencing flashbacks.

Understandably, this type of violence can result in enormous emotional and psychological damage to children. But trauma results from a variety of situations, many of which are less outwardly “sensational” than a shooting perpetrated by a six-year-old. For example, every day on Michigan highways, kids are passengers in cars that become involved in terrifying collisions, resulting in deaths, injuries, and long-lasting emotional trauma.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) frequently manifests after auto accidents and impacts people in all walks of life – even small children and teenagers. So, how is it identified in children? How is it diagnosed? And what can we do to treat it? In this article we’ll offer guidance, resources, along with some potential legal help for anyone whose child is suffering from injury-related PTSD.

What Are Symptoms of Childhood PTSD?


There are many ways traumatic incidents can affect a child’s behavior. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has published a long list describing how PTSD can play out in a kid’s life, including the following:

  • Reliving the event over and over in thought or in play
  • Nightmares and sleep problems
  • Becoming very upset when something causes memories of the event
  • Lack of positive emotions
  • Intense ongoing fear or sadness
  • Irritability and angry outbursts
  • Constantly looking for possible threats, being easily startled
  • Acting helpless, hopeless, or withdrawn

While those are some of the most notable symptoms, there are others that can manifest in daily life, all of which can lead to problems in school or in relating to peers, difficulties interacting with adults or authority figures, and related behavioral issues.

What Causes PTSD in Children?

There are numerous potential triggers for post-traumatic stress disorder specifically in children. Most notable are the following:

  • Severe car accidents
  • Physical, sexual, or emotional maltreatment
  • Being a victim or witness to violence or crime
  • Serious illness or death of a close family member or friend
  • Natural or human-made disasters

Sadly, the National Library of Medicine cites a study estimating that up to 60 percent of children and adolescents have been exposed to a potentially traumatic event, and that 10 percent of children under age 18 will be diagnosed with PTSD. Among them, four times more girls develop PTSD than boys. (The causes for this gender disparity are still being researched.)

What Makes Kids So Vulnerable to PTSD?

It makes sense that children are probably much more prone to PTSD than their parents. Kids don’t have the emotional maturity and defense mechanisms in place that can help protect adults from trauma, and children can’t prevent themselves from experiencing events that are simply out of their control. Furthermore, children’s brains are not as developed as adults’, rendering them more susceptible. One study noted that 26 percent of kids either experience or witness a traumatic event before turning 4 years old. At that age, trauma can become internalized, and those buried incidents might rise to the surface months or even years down the line.

How Is PTSD Diagnosed in Children?

Diagnosing PTSD in children is a multi-step process that involves a thorough assessment of the child’s symptoms and behaviors. The first step is generally a clinical interview with the child and their parents or caregivers. This interview is typically conducted by a mental health professional and is used to gather information about the child’s symptoms, the traumatic event they experienced or witnessed, and the child’s overall functioning.

Next, the mental health professional will conduct a series of psychological tests and assessments to evaluate the child’s mental state. These tests can include measures of anxiety, depression, and PTSD symptoms. They may also use behavioral observations and play therapy to assess the child’s reactions to different stimuli and to evaluate the child’s emotional and cognitive functioning.

The mental health professional may also use diagnostic criteria from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) to determine whether the child meets the criteria for PTSD. These criteria include symptoms we’ve previously listed, such as re-experiencing the traumatic event through flashbacks or nightmares, avoidance behaviors, and increased arousal or reactivity.

It is important to note that PTSD can be difficult to diagnose in children, as they may not have the same level of understanding or ability to communicate their symptoms as adults. Also, children may not have the same response to trauma as adults. They may show signs of emotional, behavioral, or developmental problems, and not always demonstrate the typical symptoms of PTSD in adults.

How Are Kids Treated for PTSD?

Fortunately, there are several viable avenues for helping kids overcome PTSD. The Michigan Department of Health & Human Services has placed many of these resources in one convenient website broken down by the age of the child being treated – from infants to age 5, from ages 6 to 16, and from ages 13 to 21. (There is some overlap in the final two categories so that a child’s current state of mental and physical development from youth to adolescence can be taken into consideration.)

Of course, there are numerous other treatment options, including help offered by school counselors, psychologists, psychiatrists, and other therapists. Several professional organizations offer assistance with finding mental health workers using online geographic search tools. Here are a few:

Since trauma affects everyone differently and each individual responds in a unique way, there is no one-size-fits-all treatment methodology for resolving or managing PTSD. What works for one child may not work for another child. But, by receiving treatment — however that may look — and being surrounded by a solid support system, most children will be able to recover quickly and relatively well from PTSD.

What Can Parents and Legal Guardians Do to Help?

Compassion and understanding can go a long way toward helping kids recover from PTSD after an accident. On the other hand, denial and anger directed at children suffering from mental health issues can be destructive and lead to withdrawal and more negative behaviors. If your child is exhibiting any of the symptoms we’ve listed above, take them seriously and seek professional help. Waiting for a solution to work itself out could lead to a lifetime of regrets — and even compound or trigger additional mental illnesses. You may be able to find immediate help at Mental Health Match, which offers a directory of Michigan therapists you can contact directly. Or, if your situation demands an instant response, there are several Michigan-based crisis hotlines available to assist you day or night.

A Personal Injury Lawyer Can Also Help

If your child has been injured in a car accident, triggering the manifestation of PTSD or other mental health issues, you have the right to sue the party that’s responsible. And, yes, PTSD is legally a form of injury. We’ll fight to get you the compensation you need to help pay for their care and aid in their recovery. Get in touch with us today to discuss your child’s traumatic experience and to put us to work – at no cost to you – on their case. You can call us anytime at 855-MIKE-WINS (855-645-3946).

Understanding Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Kids After an Auto Accident

Content checked by Mike Morse, personal injury attorney with Mike Morse Injury Law Firm. Mike Morse is the founder of Mike Morse Law Firm, the largest personal injury law firm in Michigan. Since being founded in 1995, Mike Morse Law Firm has grown to 150 employees, served 25,000 clients, and collected more than $1 billion for victims of auto, truck and motorcycle accidents. The main office is in Southfield, MI but you can also find us in Detroit, Sterling Heights and many other locations.