PTSD is not just for combat veterans: studies show that up to 15% of children who are exposed to a traumatic experience can develop the condition. In this article, we cover what PTSD looks like in children, what to do if you think your child may be exhibiting behaviors of PTSD, how it can be treated naturally with CBD, and important factors to consider before giving it to your child.
When we talk about PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), we don’t usually think of small children. Some people are reluctant to the idea that a child can develop PTSD, and unfortunately, this makes many parents unwilling to seek treatment for it. While almost any extreme, traumatic experience can cause shock to a child, they will almost always recover on their own. Even children who lose a parent will typically be back at school and into their normal activities within a few days. But what happens if your child doesn’t completely “bounce back”? What happens if your child begins to exhibit behaviors of PTSD? It is up to us as doctors, teachers, and parents to take special care of our children’s mental health, and that starts with recognizing that children, too, can develop PTSD.
Can Kids Really Get PTSD?
Although it has been extensively studied since it was officially termed “Post-traumatic Stress Disorder” in 1980, PTSD remains wildly misunderstood and misdiagnosed condition. PTSD is an anxiety disorder that has been associated with combat veterans since the American Civil War (except back then, it was called “soldier’s heart”). If you are skeptical about PTSD diagnoses in children, you might be surprised to find that several studies show the brains of children who are believed to have PTSD exhibit many of the same characteristics, behaviors, and responses as soldiers with PTSD diagnoses.
What Is PTSD In Kids?
Half of all mental health problems begin before the age fourteen, and this includes PTSD. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder happens in children the same way it happens in adults: experiencing a traumatic or distressing event. Keep in mind that what is considered “traumatic” to one child may not be to another, so it’s crucial to exercise compassion and empathy if you think you may be dealing with post-traumatic responses in a child. Usually, PTSD in children will happen after something like:
- Witnessing an accident
- Seeing a dead body
- Emotional, physical, or sexual abuse
- The death/loss of a family member or friend
- Natural disasters
- Witnessing or experiencing violence
PTSD can be caused by either physical or emotional trauma, but not every child who is exposed to trauma will end up with PTSD. Those who do are more likely to develop other problems as a result, especially if it isn’t diagnosed and treated in a timely manner. All too often, signs of PTSD are written off by doctors, teachers, and parents, and children with PTSD are often too young and fragile to understand what they are feeling. These kids rely on the adults around them to notice their behaviors and take action.
What Does PTSD Look Like?
According to The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), PTSD is noted due to the mentioned symptoms:
- Experiencing trauma all over again through frightening memories of the event in the forms of nightmares and flashbacks.
- Avoiding certain things, people, areas and hobbies/activites that will remind them of the traumatic event
- Increased awareness which will affect concentration and sleping. It will also have an impact on irritability and uncontrollable anger.
Children with PTSD experience many of the same symptoms as adults with PTSD, but there are a few differences. It’s important to pay close attention and consult a doctor, especially if your child exhibits behaviors such as:
- Irritability or aggression, including extreme temper tantrums
- Exaggerated startle response
- Problems with concentration and focus
- Anxiety or panic attacks
- Showing a lack of emotion or lack of empathy, towards self and others
- Lack of social involvement
- Nightmares or night terrors
- Sleep problems such as difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep
- The child may engage in “post-traumatic play” where they reenact parts of their trauma through play or drawings.
- They may begin avoiding activities, places, or physical reminders of the event
- If you do know that the child has been exposed to a traumatic situation and can discuss it with them, they may have a hard time sequencing the event of the trauma correctly when talking about it.
- They may also express a belief that there were warning signs that predicted the trauma, which forces their brain to believe that they can eliminate future traumas by paying closer attention to their surroundings.
Many times, symptoms of PTSD can overlap with other conditions, which is why it’s so important for doctors, teachers, and parents to use caution when diagnosing and treating a child for PTSD. Medical professionals are required to adhere to specific criteria when it comes to diagnosing PTSD, and because it can be challenging to identify, it may require a second or third opinion, especially in the cases of children.
What treatments are available to kids with PTSD?
Conventional PTSD treatments typically involve some type of therapy in addition to prescription medications. The main purpose of therapy is to teach the child the skills he or she needs to cope with the symptoms and eventually overcome the condition. The pharmaceuticals are to ease the problematic symptoms while the child is learning coping mechanisms through therapy. Antidepressants, sedatives/sleep aids, beta blockers, and mood stabilizers are typically prescribed. However, they all come with potentially dangerous side effects for both adults and children. In fact, in 2003, the UK Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency issued an advisory warning that most antidepressants are not suitable for use in individuals under the age of 18. That same year, the FDA reported suicidal tendencies, thoughts, and behaviors in pediatric patients taking antidepressants for major depressive disorders. An update from the American Academy of Child Adolescent Psychiatry advised psychiatric care and close monitoring for suicidal ideation in children who are taking antidepressants.
These warnings inhibit many parents from seeking help for their child because they think that pharmaceuticals are the only option. If you’re here, it’s likely because you’re interested in alternative methods, and how CBD from marijuana can help treat PTSD in children.
Want to dive right in? Check out CBD Uses For Treating Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
10 Things To Consider Before Treating Your Child With CBD
It’s well known that many adults with PTSD have found relief and healing with medical marijuana, but many parents are apprehensive about using this as a treatment for children. This is understandable, as the marijuana most people are familiar with is the kind that is intended to get the user high. But what some people are unaware of is that marijuana is made up of lots of medicinal compounds (called cannabinoids) and therapeutic properties that don’t cause intoxication. In fact, there’s only one cannabinoid in marijuana that, in high doses, can get you high: THC.
When it comes to treating PTSD and other conditions in children, it’s actually a cannabinoid called cannabidiol, or CBD, that has become popular these days because of its powerful medicinal capabilities and its very low risk of side effect. Cannabidiol works with a human system called the Endocannabinoid System, which is a network of endocannabinoids (your body’s naturally producing cannabinoid) and their corresponding receptors. This system was designed to help the body regulate vital human functions, many of them pertaining to PTSD, such as mood regulation, sleep regulation, appetite, stress sensors, pain, and inflammation. Sometimes, in cases like PTSD, the body has difficulty expressing endocannabinoids, or they metabolize too quickly to do their job. This causes Endocannabinoid System dysfunction, which has also been found in people with mood-related disorders, anxiety disorders, and depression. It is believed that taking CBD and other phytocannabinoids (cannabinoids from plants) will make up for the endocannabinoid deficiency, which can help bring balance back to the ECS and heal symptoms of PTSD. Of course, safety is the biggest concern for parents who want to use alternative methods with their children. Here are ten things to consider before choosing CBD for your child:
- CBD and THC are very different: many products on the market today (even medicinal ones) are designed for adults who can handle the intoxicating effect of THC. While THC in high doses can get you high, it is not harmful and can be quite powerful in medicine when used appropriately. THC is great for pain management and other physical conditions, but because of its psychotropic effect, it’s not recommended for treating PTSD. High doses of THC can cause feelings of paranoia, which may heighten the already anxious nature of a PTSD child. It’s important to remember that most CBD products will contain at least trace amounts of THC, so if that is a concern for you, make sure to do your homework and find a company that makes a product you are okay with.
- CBD is not toxic: One concern parents have with pharmaceutically medicating their children is the possibility of overdose. The U.S. government currently holds a patent on cannabinoids, and says that CBD “is not psychoactive, and is not psychotoxic even at high doses.” It goes on several times to reiterate that cannabinoids “are substantially non-toxic even at very high doses.” This doesn’t mean any dose will do – cannabinoids work differently when used in different ratios and varying doses. It’s important to make a treatment plan with your doctor and stick with it, taking note of any minor changes in your child’s behavior, either positive or negative.
- CBD is considered safe: it’s definitely possible to take too much, but side effects from overdosing on CBD are mild. Usually, it will just mildly sedate the user. The biggest concern you should have with CBD is that is can interact with some pharmaceuticals and over the counter medications. This is typically more of a concern for adults, but if your child is taking any of these medications, discuss your options with your doctor.
- It can be expensive: deciding to treat any condition with CBD is a commitment, and finances can be a big deterrent: CBD is rarely covered by insurance, so expect to pay out of pocket. Additionally, quality products can be costly, so take that into consideration before you begin a treatment regimen with CBD. A little CBD goes a long way, however, and many parents don’t mind the cost when they know they are providing quality, natural, and safe care for their child.
- Not all doctors are open to it: unfortunately, some healthcare professionals are resistant to the idea of using CBD as medicine for a number of reasons: they may feel there is not enough evidence proving its efficacy, they may be turned off at the idea of prescribing something they don’t regulate and can’t make money off of, or they may be hung up on social stigma and think that marijuana is a “dirty drug.” Whatever the case, if you and your doctor disagree on what is best for your child, it may be time to look for another provider. The choice to use CBD as medicine is completely up to you, and if you want to explore those options, it’s best to do it with a doctor that you can have open, honest communication with. If your child is currently under professional care for PTSD, it is not recommended to treat your child or take your child off any current medications without discussing it with your doctor first.
- It’s legal, but it isn’t: because of current shaky legal and social issues, many parents are apprehensive about giving cannabis products to their children. There is so much confusion over the legality of CBD and cannabis, and it isn’t exactly cut and dry. On a federal level, marijuana is illegal, which makes CBD illegal by association. However, local laws can be different: in fact, there are 18 states that have laws specifically protecting CBD users. To make it even more confusing, CBD derived from marijuana is considered federally illegal, but CBD derived from hemp (a variety of cannabis that contains less than 0.03% THC) is legal in all 50 states. It’s important to stay up to date on your local laws and know exactly what you are purchasing so you can steer clear of legal repercussions.
- Watch your labels: because it remains federally illegal, cannabis products are not regulated by the FDA. This means, companies can write pretty much whatever they want on their labels, whether it reflects what’s in the bottle or not. Be wary of wild claims and unusually low prices, as this may indicate an impure product. There are lots of reputable companies that market quality products, so do your homework and make sure you are buying from an honest company that can answer all your questions.
- Talk to others: because it’s a bit taboo, you may be hesitant to discuss using CBD for your child’s PTSD, but there are a lot of people who support it. If you look, you can find resources, recommendations for products, and other ideas and methods that can help you approach treating PTSD naturally. Don’t be shy – there are many online groups and forums filled with parents who are eager to share their positive experiences with CBD.
- It can be easier than medication: trying to get a child to swallow a pill every day can be difficult, especially if he or she is very young. CBD products come in a variety of forms, and it should be fairly easy to find a method of administration that works for both you and your child. CBD gummies – which resemble gummy vitamins – are popular for young children, and many liquid CBD products can be hidden in food and drinks, so the child has no idea they are even taking medicine.
- Seek additional help: in more severe cases, therapy is a great resource and can help your child process their feelings about the trauma. It is highly recommended to implement some form of therapy in addition to using CBD for PTSD.
Symptoms of Pediatric PTSD That Can Be Eased With CBD
For those looking into alternative medicine for PTSD, it’s important to understand what symptoms doctors pharmaceutically treat, and then find a natural resource that can do the same. CBD has many of the same mechanisms as antidepressants, sedatives, mood stabilizers, and even beta blockers, but how effective is it as a PTSD treatment?
Here are some common symptoms of PTSD, and how CBD can help:
- Stress: one of the key characteristics of PTSD is low cortisol levels. Cortisol is an important hormone that plays a role in our “fight or flight” system. In the moment of a stressful or traumatic situation, the body’s cortisol levels will spike dramatically to prepare for fighting or fleeing from danger. This is a very normal response, however, in some cases, the body never fully recovers from this surge, which essentially causes an imbalance and “burns out” the adrenal hormone. CBD is remarkable in that it can help temper cortisol levels in the human body: it has been found to lower cortisol in individuals who produce too much, and raise cortisol in those who don’t have enough – like we see in PTSD patients.
- Sleep problems: the inability to fall and stay asleep is a common problem in both children and adults with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. Insufficient sleep can slow down healing and exacerbate other symptoms of PTSD, so many patients are prescribed sleep aids so they can rest and heal physically, mentally, and emotionally through the night. A well-known case study in 2015 treated a young girl with CBD for insomnia and other complications due to PTSD. According to the study, “the main finding from this case study is that CBD oil can be an effective compound to reduce anxiety and insomnia secondary to PTSD.” Her scores on the insomnia and anxiety scales slowly decreased after five months of CBD and nutritional supplements – and no pharmaceuticals were used or needed. CBD has natural sedative effects and can increase overall sleep and help regulate sleep patterns long-term through its work with the Endocannabinoid System.
- Nightmares: while cannabidiol has little effect on the NREM (dreamless) cycle of our sleep, several studies have shown that it may actually “block anxiety-induced sleep alteration” in patients with PTSD. This study, published in 2011, explains how CBD can decrease the REM cycle (the time in which we dream) in those suffering from nightmares caused by anxiety or trauma. Additionally, CBD can aid in REM Behavior Disorder, a symptom children with PTSD often experience. Typically, during REM, our body becomes “paralyzed,” which keeps a sleeping person from physically reacting to dreams. Children with PTSD can lack this immobilization and may experience physical responses to frightening dreams, which leads to disrupted sleep and the possibility of injuring themselves.
- Anxiety: PTSD is an anxiety disorder, so agitation, worry, and anxious behaviors are almost always a constant symptom in those suffering from the condition. Cannabidiol has been and continues to be studied and tested to treat several different forms of anxiety disorders, all with promising results. CBD has naturally calming effects, and because it helps balance out cortisol levels, can help calm and eliminate anxiety in children who have PTSD.
- Focus: many people assume that marijuana makes users slow and unable to concentrate. This is not necessarily the case: CBD interacts directly with dopamine in the brain, the chemical neurotransmitter responsible for memory, focus, and awareness. Children with PTSD will generally have too much dopamine release in their system, which not only affects cognitive performance, but can also contribute to personality disorders, psychosis, increased impulse behaviors, and withdrawal from social situations. CBD can help regulate dopamine release and has been used to improve symptoms of other cognitive-related disorders like ADHD and dementia.
- Depression: depressive behaviors, thoughts, and feelings are commonly exhibited in people with PTSD, but antidepressants are not recommended for anyone under 18, making this a very difficult symptom to treat in children. An article in the April 2016 volume of Neuropharmacology reported that CBD could actually work as a fast-acting antidepressant by enhancing serotonin levels. Interestingly, inflammation is one of the key factors in depression, and it’s been shown that using non-steroidal anti-inflammatories can help treat symptoms better than pharmaceutical antidepressants. Inflammation of the immune system is particularly prominent in PTSD cases, and one of CBD’s most impressive qualities is its anti-inflammatory effects within – you guessed it – the immune system. This is where certain receptors of the ECS (CB2 receptors) are primarily located, and where CBD does much of its work.
What To Do If Your Child Has PTSD
PTSD can be overwhelming for both children and adults, and the symptoms can feel different for everyone. It can be difficult for some parents and teachers to empathize with children who begin to exhibit symptoms, and sometimes we’re not sure how to address it. Whether your child has been diagnosed with PTSD or you suspect they may have recently developed it, you may not be sure how to talk to or act around your child. Here are some tips:
Watch for signs: The most important thing you can do for your child is to pay attention. If you don’t take note of potential signs of PTSD or other mental health conditions, who will? Untreated PTSD in children can lead to aggressive or risky behavior, impulsivity, detachment, substance abuse, self-harm, and a long list of serious issues and conditions. As teachers, doctors, and parents, we are responsible for the health and welfare of our children, and it is up to us to act on or report any behavior that is potentially dangerous to the child.
Don’t force: avoidance and detachment are extremely common in children with PTSD. If you know the child has been exposed to a trauma, try not to force them into talking about it. If the child seems resistant, therapy is an excellent step to get him or her comfortable with communication. This will open the doors to teaching them how to process and heal from the trauma.
Listen: if the child does want to talk about it, do not dismiss or minimize the event in any way. Children perceive things much differently than adults, and while PTSD in children is often caused by obvious trauma, sometimes the event does not appear as significant to adults as they are to a child. As adults, we’re usually able to see things through the lens of maturity and life experience. To us, the fears and anxieties of kids might seem irrational, but to the child gripped with fear, anger or some other emotion, the horror they feel is real, and it can have a lasting effect.
Be there: the time it takes to heal from PTSD can largely depend on the level of support the child feels through the healing process. One of the most important things a parent can do for their child – PTSD or not – is to just be there. Make sure your child knows that you will listen without judgment and that they have a safe space with you whenever they need it. PTSD children are exceptionally vulnerable and need to know that they are safe not just physically, but emotionally.
Do not delay treatment: if your child has been exhibiting signs of PTSD for a few weeks with no improvement, it may be time to seek professional help. Make an appointment with your trusted medical professional and make sure your child is comfortable with the doctors and therapists you choose. This can have a huge impact on the length and results of their treatment.
PTSD itself is not life-threatening, but it can be dangerous when left untreated. Depending on the severity of the trauma, the healing process could take a long time, and symptoms could even go dormant before causing relapse months (or even years) later. Children with PTSD need extra care, attention, and patience if you want their recovery to be complete and successful. Remember that, while it is difficult right now, PTSD does not have to be a lifelong condition. Talk to your doctor if you feel you are ready to discuss CBD for your child.