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What is acute stress disorder?

Acute stress disorder is a mental health condition that happens when a child has a very strong emotional reaction to an upsetting event. The event could be a serious accident or injury, sexual assault, the death of a loved one, a natural disaster, or any other intensely stressful experience.  

In acute stress disorder, the child’s reaction is more extreme than normal. It can cause problems at home, at school and with friends. Acute stress disorder is similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but it doesn’t last as long. 

What are the symptoms of acute stress disorder?

Signs of acute stress disorder show up between three days and one month after the upsetting event. The child might experience: 

  • Nightmares or memories of the event that don’t go away 
  • Feeling like the event is happening all over again 
  • Anxiety when things remind them of the event 
  • Going out of their way to avoid people or places that remind them of the event  
  • Getting angry more than usual 
  • Problems with sleep 
  • Trouble concentrating 
  • Frequent sadness or bad mood 
  • Seeming dazed or “out of it”  

How is acute stress disorder diagnosed?

For a child to be diagnosed with acute stress disorder, two things must happen: 

  • The child must have personally experienced the upsetting event, seen it happen, or learned that it happened to a close family member. 
  • The child must experience several of the symptoms listed above between 3 and 30 days after the event. 

Acute stress disorder has the same symptoms as PTSD, but it is considered less serious because it does not last as long. If acute stress disorder symptoms continue beyond 30 days after the event, the child is diagnosed with PTSD instead.  

Risk factors for developing acute stress disorder

The biggest risk factor for developing acute stress disorder is experiencing previous trauma. Kids who have been through very stressful experiences in the past are at a higher risk of acute stress disorder. Girls are also more likely to develop acute stress disorder than boys. 

How is acute stress disorder treated?

Sometimes, acute stress disorder goes away on its own. When it doesn’t, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is often an effective treatment. CBT helps kids learn to manage their emotions and develop coping skills. 

This guide was last reviewed or updated on December 12, 2023.