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4 PTSD Risk Factors for Kids With Disabilities

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Why do some kids who experience trauma recover quickly while others “get stuck” in the trauma and develop PTSD?

According to Dr. Linda Gantt, executive director at Intensive Trauma Therapy, Inc. (ITT), four risk factors increase the likelihood of PTSD developing in children who have experienced a traumatic, scary event, including invasive medical procedures common for many kids with disabilities.

• What is PTSD?

Risk Factor 1: Unexpected, Unpredictable or Emergency Situations

Children hit out of the blue with scary events are much more likely to develop PTSD than children who are warned and prepared ahead of time for them. Of course, by nature, most traumatic events are unexpected, unpredictable emergencies.

Most, but not all.

Children can be prepared ahead of time for scheduled invasive medical or dental procedures. They can also be prepared for major life changes which are not scary to adults, but over which children have no control or say — like moving to a new town.

Risk Factor 2: Age of the Child when Trauma Occurs

Contrary to popular thought, the younger a child is when trauma occurs, the more likely it is to cause PTSD. Why? Well, the reason is similar to what was discussed in the first risk facotor. The younger the child, the more unexpected, unpredictable and emergency-like a frightening or physically painful event will seem because very young children are less able to understand an explanation and be prepared for it.

Risk Factor 3: Repeated, Significant Trauma

This risk factor is a little more intuitive. It makes sense that kids who experience repeated, significant trauma are more likely to develop PTSD. It also makes sense for this risk factor to affect kids who experience events that are emotionally upsetting and confusing, physically painful or frightening.

Think about kids who move from foster home to foster home, bounce from school to school, or are in the hospital for repeated invasive medical procedures. Eventually, these kids start looking over their shoulders in a heightened state of alert, expecting the next terrible thing to happen because such is the ingrained pattern of their lives.

Risk Factor 4: Partial Awakening During Medical Procedures

This fourth risk factor applies to medically-induced trauma only. Children of any age who partially awaken (also known as “going light”) during medical procedures, are much more likely to develop PTSD than children who remain completely anesthetized during surgery. Patients who partially awaken can hear and sometimes feel what’s happening to them, but they are unable to move or speak. They experience a total lack of control.

If total lack of control is the hallmark of this risk factor, perhaps it does have implications beyond medical procedures. Perhaps children who who have experienced a total lack of control elsewhere in their lives are also more likely to develop PTSD — like children who go through repeated,  unexpected, unpredictable or emergency situations.

How to Combat These Risk Factors

So much for the bad news. The first bit of good news is this: once the risk factors are known, parents and caregivers can employ strategies to minimize those risk factors so kids who are traumatized don’t develop PTSD. And here’s the second bit of good news: PTSD in children is a very treatable mental illness. Future posts will explore this good news in greater detail. Until then, if you suspect your child may have PTSD, here are a few websites to explore:

If you have other questions about PTSD in children with disabilities, go to and contact Jolene directly.

Getty image by LightFieldStudios

Originally published: March 6, 2018
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