Post-traumatic stress disorder: Overview


What is post-traumatic stress disorder?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that is triggered by witnessing or experiencing a terrifying event. Examples of terrifying events include:

  • abuse or neglect
  • domestic or community violence
  • bullying
  • war
  • accidents
  • burns
  • animal attacks or bites
  • natural disasters
  • painful medical procedures.

Children and teens with PTSD may experience flashbacks, nightmares, uncontrolled anxiety and uncontrollable thoughts about the event. As a result, they will often avoid reminders of the traumatic event.

How does PTSD differ from other reactions to stressful or disturbing events?

PTSD is different from a typical reaction to stress in two ways.

  • It lasts for over a month after the traumatic event.
  • Its symptoms significantly interfere with everyday life.

What causes PTSD?

By definition, PTSD occurs after a person experiences or witnesses a traumatic event. Not everyone who experiences a traumatic event develops PTSD, however. Some children and teens are more likely to develop PTSD due to:

  • biological factors
  • psychological factors
  • social factors.

Biological factors

Biological factors include genetics (traits that can be passed down from one generation to another) and a family history of mental health conditions.

Psychological factors

Psychological factors include a person’s individual response to stress. Those who tend to experience more negative emotions in response to a stressor are at greater risk for PTSD.

Social factors

Social factors refer to a person’s environment, including their family life and community. PTSD can be more common in those with previous experience of traumatic events and/or those who may lack supports to help them cope.

How common is PTSD in children and teens?

No Canadian statistics are available for PTSD in children and teens. However, US data suggest that 5 per cent of teens (one teen in 20) aged 13 to 18 meet the conditions for a PTSD diagnosis. Within this group, PTSD is more common in girls and is more common as teens get older.

There are no clear studies on rates of PTSD in younger children, but US data indicate that the condition occurs in 60 per cent of children and teens exposed to domestic or family violence.

How can I help my child if they appear to have PTSD?

If your child seems to be showing signs and symptoms of PTSD​ after a traumatic event, first talk to them about their feelings. Listen to your child and offer support.

If your child has developed PTSD, it is important that they receive a proper assessment and formal treatment​. As a first step, take your child to their doctor.

Does PTSD occur with other conditions?

PTSD commonly occurs with other conditions, especially anxiety disorders. It also commonly occurs with depression​ and substance use disorders.

Key points

  • PTSD may be suspected if a child’s difficulties with coping in response to traumatic events last longer than a month and interfere with everyday life.
  • Factors associated with PTSD include a family history of mental health conditions, a person’s response to stress and previous exposure to a traumatic event. However, even without these risk factors, PTSD can affect children and teens who are exposed to a traumatic event.
  • If your child has symptoms of PTSD, talk to them about their feelings and see your child’s doctor for further evaluation.

Further information

For more information on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), please see the following pages:

PTSD: Signs and symptoms

PTSD: Treatment with psychotherapy and medications​

​Diane Benoit, MD, FRCPC