Amalie came to see me a few weeks after her family’s home tragically burned to the ground. Amalie and her sister were in their upstairs bedroom when the fire swept through their home. They were rescued by fire fighters and watched from the road as their home came crashing down. Amalie was 6 years old and seemed “fine at first,” according to her mother. However, a few weeks after the fire, Amalie started having intense nightmares during which she would sit straight up in bed screaming. “It takes a while to get her settled back into bed. Sometimes she remembers in the morning and sometimes she doesn’t. She’s also not wanting to leave my side. Like, ever. She cries when I drop her off at school and her teacher has told me that she’s not playing with her friends during recess, but prefers to sit with her teacher on the sidelines.” Amalie told me that she could not stand to see fire burning and that seeing a lit candle made her mouth feel dry and her chest hurt. She had stopped eating much and subsequently lost about 5 pounds in the past month.
I explained to Amalie’s mother that she was experiencing post traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. Amalie’s mother was surprised as she had only heard of soldiers getting PTSD. I explained that the nightmares, separation anxiety, decreased social interaction and intense fear when exposed to triggers like a candle flame were all indicative of PTSD and that it’s a disorder that can happen to anyone who experiences something that feels life threatening to the person at the time it happens. Also, PTSD often shows up weeks, months, or sometimes, even years, after the life threatening event occurred.
Amalie decided to see a trauma focused therapist twice a week and, a few weeks later, we all decided that Amalie would benefit from a mild medication to help ease her nightmares and improve her functioning. Her treatment plan worked very well and she completed therapy and medication within the year. She no longer has nightmares, is back to playing with friends at school, has been on a couple of successful sleepovers at friends homes and even went camping with her family and was able to roast ‘smores over the campfire without triggering any panic or flashbacks.
Facts About Childhood PTSD
- The symptoms of PTSD may last from several months to several years.
- Medication can be helpful to deal with agitation, anxiety, or depression.
- Individual, group, or family therapy, behavioral therapy, trauma focused therapy, art therapy, play therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy can all be very useful in recovering from PTSD.
- One in eight children suffer trauma that leads to significant impairments in their mental and physical wellbeing.