The Course of Posttraumatic Stress in Children: Examination of Recovery Trajectories Following Traumatic Injury

Robyne M. Le Brocque, PhD; Joan Hendrikz, BSc; Justin A. Kenardy, PhD


J Pediatr Psychol. 2010;35(6):637-645. 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction


Objective Group-based trajectory modeling was used to identify patterns of posttraumatic stress symptom (PTSS) in children 6–16 years following accidental injury. The aims were to: (a) identify probable groups of children following distinct trajectories, and (b) identify risk factors affecting the probability of group membership.
Method Children's Impact of Events Scale (n = 190) was used to assess PTSS up to 2 years post injury. Age, gender, type of injury, and preinjury behavior were assessed as risk factors.
Results Three distinct trajectory groups were identified: resilient (57%), elevated stress symptoms which recovered quickly (33%), and chronic (10%). Younger children were more likely to be in the recovery group. Those with serious injuries were more likely to be in the chronic group. Preinjury child behavior problems were predictive of recovery and high chronic symptoms.
Conclusion Identification of distinct PTSS trajectory groups has implications for understanding the course and treatment of PTSS in children.


Accidental injury is one of the leading causes of death and disability in children (World Health Organization, 2006), yet there is a dearth of information on the social and emotional costs resulting from child accidental injury. Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a diagnosis used to describe a constellation of child psychological symptoms resulting from exposure to traumatic events including accidental injury. Symptoms include re-experiencing such as flashbacks, avoidance of reminders of the trauma, and increased arousal such as hypervigilance, which persist for over 1 month and cause significant distress or impairment in functioning (World Health Organization, 2006). Subthreshold posttraumatic stress symptoms (PTSS) have also been associated with increased impairment in functioning, and other mental health and behavior problems (Daviss et al., 2000; De Vries et al.,1999). Although varying rates of symptoms have been observed following trauma, few studies have explored individual recovery patterns. This paper explores trajectory patterns of PTSS in children following accidental injury. The relationships between risk factors: child age, gender, type of injury, and pretrauma child behavior and symptom trajectory patterns are examined.

Posttraumatic stress disorder in children following accidental injury has been estimated to be around 20% with an additional 25% of children meeting partial criteria for PTSD (Kahana, Feeny, Youngstrom, & Drotar, 2006). Most studies report a decline in the prevalence of symptoms post injury (Di Gallo, Barton, & Parry-Jones, 1997; Gillies, Barton, & Di Gallo, 2003; Kassam-Adams & Winston, 2004; Mather, Tate, & Hannan, 2003; Max et al., 1998; Olsson, Kenardy, De Young, & Spence, 2008; Sturms et al., 2005). Although the majority of children recover quickly following exposure to traumatic events, there is also evidence that a small minority can develop chronic PTSS (Di Gallo et al., 1997; Gillies et al., 2003; Mather et al., 2003; Pine, Costello, & Masten, 2005). Max et al. (1998) found a pattern of high levels of PTSS up to 3 months posttraumatic brain injury (68%) which declined gradually to 12% at 2 years. While the body of evidence is scarce, some studies have found small numbers of children with delayed onset PTSS (Gillies et al., 2003; Mather et al., 2003; Yule et al., 2000). These cases are more likely to have subclinical symptoms preceding full diagnosis (Yule et al., 2000).


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