Children's Hospital Colorado

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

What is posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?

Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a group of symptoms that a person may experience in reaction to directly experiencing or witnessing a terrifying or dangerous event.

How is PTSD different from typical emotions after a traumatic event?

Everyone experiences a different range of reactions following a traumatic event. Those people who continue to struggle in the months following the event may be diagnosed with PTSD. The symptoms must represent a change in the person’s mood and behavior that occurs following the traumatic event.

What causes PTSD?

There is no true cause for PTSD; however, the symptoms represent a reaction to a traumatic event.

A traumatic event occurs when there is an observed, perceived or experienced threat to one's personal safety or the safety of others. These can include (but are not limited to) car accident, robbery, natural disaster, physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, neglect, witnessing domestic violence and/or chronic medical treatments. What may be considered threatening and traumatic for an adult can be different for a child and vice versa.

Who gets PTSD?

Children, adolescents and adults who experience a traumatic event are at risk for developing PTSD. The condition can occur at any age after the first year of life.

Certain factors related to a child’s environment and his or her own temperament can influence the development of PTSD.

Risk factors for PTSD include anything that increases a person's risk of developing symptoms following a traumatic event, including:

  • Environmental risk factors, such as a dangerous neighborhood
  • Familial risk factors, such as a family history of mental illness
  • Within-child risk factors, such as a child who has an easily overwhelmed temperament

Protective factors include anything that decreases a person's risk of developing symptoms following a traumatic event, including:

  • Environmental protective factors, such as a good school and teachers)
  • Familial protective factors, such as a supportive family
  • Within-child protective factors, such as an active coping style

Get to know our pediatric experts.

Amy Mackey, LPC

Amy Mackey, LPC

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Allison Dempsey, PhD

Allison Dempsey, PhD

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Kim Kelsay, MD

Kim Kelsay, MD

Psychiatry

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