A new study published in Pediatrics shows that children are susceptible to symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder when parents are seriously injured.

The study showed that children who were involved in an injury event that injured one or more parents are at greater risk for stress and depression than children who did not.

During the study, researchers looked at 175 parent-child pairs that fell into one of four groups:

  • parent and child both injured in the same event
  • child was injured
  • parents was injured
  • neither parent nor child underwent significant injury

Researchers assessed the preinjury health and functioning of parents and children, as well as follow-up at 5 and 12 months. They found that parents who were injured experienced impairment in daily living and quality of life, as well as higher rates of depression during both follow-ups.

Pairs that saw both the parent and child injured had the highest rate of PTSD symptoms at 5 and 12 months, and children with an injured parents were more likely to report symptoms at 5 months.

Post-traumatic stress disorder tends to develop after a terrifying event that involves physical harm or the threat of physical harm. PTSD has been documented extensively in war veterans, as well as mugging, torture, kidnapping, child abuse, car accidents, train wrecks, plane crashes, bombings, earthquakes, or other natural disasters.

Scientists have narrowed down the causes of PTSD to genes and affected brain areas. PTSD researchers have pinpointed genes that make stathmin, a protein needed to form fear memories; gastrin-releasing peptide (GRP), a chemical released during emotional events that leads to the creation of lasting memories; and the 5-HTTLPR gene, which controls serotonin levels, designed to fuel the fear response.

PTSD researchers have also studied different parts of the brain that deal with fear and stress, such as the amygdala, which has a role in emotion, learning, and memory. The prefrontal cortex, which is involved in decision-making, problem-solving, and judgment, has a role in fear and stress control. Environmental factors like childhood trauma, head injuries, or a history of mental illness, can also increase your risk for PTSD by affecting the growth of the brain.

The symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder can vary, but they generally fall into three categories:

  1. Re-experiencing symptoms: flashbacks, bad dreams, frightening thoughts
  2. Avoidance symptoms: staying away from places, events or objects that are reminders of the event; feeling emotionally numb; feeling strong guilt, depression, or worry; losing interest in activities that were previously enjoyable; having trouble remembering the traumatic event
  3. Hyperarousal symptoms: being easily startled, feeling tense or “on edge,” difficulty sleeping, angry outbursts

For young children, symptoms can include: bedwetting when they already know how to use the toilet, forgetting how to talk (or being unable to do so), acting out the scary event during playtime, and being unusually clingy with a parent or other adult. Teenagers can become disruptive, destructive, or disrespectful as a result of PTSD.

Visit the Mayo Clinic website for more information about post-traumatic stress disorder.