About 1 in 6 children and adolescents develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after being exposed to a traumatic event, according to new research.
The meta-analysis, which analysed data from 43 studies from across the world, also revealed that girls are at higher risk of developing PTSD than boys.
Prior to this study, there was substantial uncertainly about the incidence of PTSD in trauma-exposed children and adolescents. Previous studies have found rates ranging from 0% to 100%, with one meta-analysis estimating that 36% of children exposed to trauma go on to develop PTSD.
'Internalising' emotions after trauma
In this study, researchers studied 72 peer-reviewed articles that examined more than 3,500 children aged between 2 and 18 years old who had been exposed to a variety of traumatic events, including motor vehicle accidents, the sudden loss of a parent, life-threatening illness, war, domestic violence and child maltreatment.
The researchers found that, overall, about 16% of children and adolescents exposed to traumatic experiences went on to develop PTSD. There was considerable variation in this rate, depending on the type of trauma.
Lead researcher Dr Eva Alisic, of the Monash Injury Research Institute in Australia, said: “The overall rate of 16% is lower than some previous estimates. Nevertheless, it shows that a significant minority of children develop PTSD following trauma, and indicates that the burden of trauma on young people can be substantial.
“Our findings provide critical information on the expected rates of PTSD among children and young people who are exposed to trauma. This information is useful in allowing for a better appraisal of the need for mental health resources, and in ensuring resources are allocated to those who are most in need.”
About 1 in 10 children developed PTSD after non-interpersonal trauma, while 1 in 4 developed the condition after interpersonal trauma. The researchers believe that interpersonal trauma leads to higher rates of PTSD because it may be more chronic, involve a betrayal of trust – if the perpetrator is a family member – more strongly shatter a child’s assumptions about the world, or lead to more self-blame.
The researchers also found that girls were more likely to develop PTSD following trauma than boys – due in part to the fact that girls are more likely to be exposed to interpersonal trauma than boys.
They concluded that suggest that girls may ‘internalise’ rather than ‘externalise’ their emotions and behaviour following a traumatic event, or blame themselves for the trauma more strongly.