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Children with PTSD may recover without help says study

The development of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in children should not be cause for immediate alarm, according to a study published today.

Trauma exposure in childhood has the potential to disrupt a young person’s development, yet little is understood about early recovery from trauma in youth.

Published in the journal Depression and Anxiety, the Medical Research Council-funded study by scientists at the University of East Anglia (UEA) aimed to better understand the development of PTSD in children and adolescents and its symptoms, with a view to informing early intervention and treatment.

They found that, while post-traumatic stress symptoms are a very common response to trauma in children and adolescents in the first weeks after a trauma, these symptoms are entirely normal and will often improve without intervention. 

Dr Richard Meiser-Stedman, from UEA’s Department of Clinical Psychology said: “Our findings suggest that the symptoms of post-traumatic stress should not necessarily be cause for alarm, because they may not cause any significant difficulties for young people.

“In those who do develop a clinically significant response, they can still recover on their own over two to three months, without formal help or intervention, in about a half of all cases. This is useful in informing potential future early interventions to ensure they improve this recovery, and don’t disrupt it.”

This was the first study to track the early recovery of children and adolescents within three months of being exposed to a single traumatic event using clinical interviews.

The participants in the study were aged 8-17 and were Emergency Department attendees who had been exposed to a single trauma (e.g. a motor vehicle collision).

The children and adolescents who displayed early reactions and did not recover on their own tended to report more withdrawal, emotional “numbing” and negative thoughts about themselves and the world in the first weeks after a trauma. Having large numbers of ‘re-experiencing’ (e.g. nightmares, flashbacks) or arousal (e.g. irritability, hypervigilance) symptoms however did not mark out children and young people who were unlikely to make a recovery.

Dr Meiser-Stedman said: “These findings can help inform when intervention is needed. Clinicians can consider whether a ‘watchful waiting’ or more active treatment approach is needed. However, more research is needed to explore those who suffer a more acute response in terms of symptoms.”



Study Medicine at UEA