Childhood PTSD AND Trauma: Part 1

BW portrait of sad crying little boy covers his face with handsImagine a four-year-old child found covered in blood, lying over her mother’s naked, dead body, whimpering incoherently. She’s witnessed her mother being raped and murdered, and her own throat had been cut, twice in an attempt to leave behind no witnesses. She’s alone with her mother for approximately eleven hours before she is discovered.

After being hospitalized she is released as a ward of the state and put into foster care with no follow up treatment for the trauma she experienced.

How will she go on through life with those images etched in her mind? How will she survive psychologically? How will her mind protect her from such traumatic experiences?

This story is unfortunately a very true story, one of several stories of childhood trauma that can be found in the book, The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog by Bruce Perry and Maia Szalavaitz.

Tragedies like this occur across our nation and the world everyday, leaving behind sometimes physical, but always emotional and psychological scars.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a condition that 30 or so years ago was reserved only for soldiers who had experienced traumatic events at war. It was later recognized that rape survivors, people who had been through terrible accidents or natural disaster, also exhibited symptoms of PTSD including flashback, hyper-vigilance and avoidance behaviors.

When it came to children however, the mental health and medical fields were slow to realize the impact of trauma on their lives.

Children were thought to be naturally resilient and would “bounce back” without the aid of any type of support or treatment. Those same children who had experienced trauma would often later develop psychiatric problems, depression and attention issues that would sometimes led to medication.

We know  now that children who have live through tragedies, are just as affected as adults, perhaps even more so. This is evident in the great way the mental health community around the nation responded to the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy.

What Causes PTSD?

PTSD can occur in anyone who has lived through an event in which they could have been killed or severely hurt or where they witnessed someone else getting killed or severely hurt. These can include violent crimes, physical or sexual abuse, someone close to them committing suicide, car crashes, shootings, war and natural disasters just to name a few.

Approximately 40% of children by the age of 18 will experience a traumatic event, which includes the loss of a parent or sibling and domestic violence. In the United States, child protective services receives an estimated 3 million reports of abuse and neglect yearly, involving approximately 5.5 million kids. About 30% of all those cases show proof of abuse:

  • 65% neglect
  • 18% physical abuse
  • 10% sexual abuse
  • 7% psychological (mental) abuse

This of course doesn’t include the estimate 66% of child abuse cases that are never reported.

The Likely Hood Of PTSD Developing

Girls are more likely than boys to develop PTSD symptoms. Approximately 3-15% of girls and 1-6% of boys who experience a trauma will develop PTSD. The chances of developing PTSD are higher depending on the type of trauma experienced. Some of the risk factors for PTSD include:

  • How severe the trauma was
  • How the parents react to the trauma
  • How close or far away that child is from the trauma

Of course children who go through the most severe traumas have the highest level and severity of PTSD symptoms. Incidents where people are hurting other people such as assault and rape, tend to result in PTSD more frequently. Children who have healthy support systems tend to have less severe symptoms.

The age of the child during the traumatic experience doesn’t seem to effect rather PTSD symptoms will develop, however PTSD looks different in children of different ages.

What Does PTSD Look Like In Children Ages 5-12?

  • children may not have flashbacks or problems remembering parts of the trauma like adults with PTSD often do.
  • Children might, however put the events of the trauma in the wrong order.
  • They might also think there were signs that the trauma was going to happen and thus they think that they will see these signs again before another trauma happens.
  • They think that if they pay attention, they can avoid future traumas which can lead to hyper-vigilance.

Children around this age may also show signs of PTSD during their play. They may keep reenacting part of the trauma. For instance, a child who has seen a shooting may want to play video games involving shootings or carry a gun to school.

Teens (ages 12-18)

In teens, some of the PTSD symptoms may be similar to those of adults including flashbacks, reoccurring nightmares about the event, hyper-vigilance and exaggerated startle responses. Teens are more likely than children or adults to show aggressive and impulsive behavior.

What are the other effects of trauma on children?

Other effects of trauma on children from PTSD comes from research done with children who have been through sexual abuse. They include:

  • fear
  • worry
  • sadness
  • anger
  • feeling alone and apart from others
  • feeling as if people are looking down on them
  • low self-worth
  • not being able to trust others
  • undesired behaviors such as aggression, out-of-place sexual behavior, self-harm, and abuse of drugs or alcohol

For many children, PTSD symptoms go away on their own after a few months. Yet some children show symptoms for years and possibly a lifetime  if they do not get treatment.

How Is PTSD Treated In Children?

For some children, the symptoms of PTSD will go away on their own with healthy supports and when they aren’t being re-traumatized by anxious parents or the media. For others, they may need professional help including:

  • Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy such as Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
  • Psychological first aid/crisis management
  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR)
  • Play therapy
  • Special treatments may be necessary for children who show out-of-place sexual behaviors, extreme behavior problems, or problems with drugs or alcohol.

What Can You Do To Help?

Educated yourself on PTSD and pay attention to your child for signs such as anger, avoidance of certain places and people, problems with friends, academic changes and sleep problems. If you need professional help, find a therapist in your area that treats PTSD and that your child feels comfortable with.  Where to Get Help .

 

Sources: The National Center for PTSD

The Cycle of Violence, Power and Control

ImageWorking as a counselor in a high school, I am surprised at the amount of abuse many young girls I work with have gone through. Not to mention the sexual, physical and psychological abuse many of them went through growing up, but how much of that has affected them now as teenagers.

A surprising amount of young ladies in high school, and perhaps even in middle school are involved in physically abusive relationships. Having dealt with many of these young ladies, I’ve recognized that many of them believe that if a guy doesn’t hit or get physically rough with them, then “he doesn’t really love me”. This may not make any sense to most people, but a lot of these young ladies have grown up in homes where the people who “love” them, especially the men in their lives, are often the same people who abuse them, so many of these young ladies have subconsciously equated love with violence, manipulation and fear. Also, since many of the people who these women look to for protection, they also equate physical violence with a guys ability to protect them, even if it’s the guy himself they need protecting from.

I’ve had young ladies tell me that they would break up with a guy if he didn’t hit or push her when she got “out of line” because they believed they needed a man who was strong enough to keep them “in line”. They would say, “Sometimes I get get out of control, get a smart mouth and act a fool. I need someone who can put me in my place.” In most cases, these young women grew up in families where men (their fathers’, mother’s boyfriends, uncles, older brothers, etc.) physically, sexually and/or psychologically abused them.

Earlier this year I was walking through the halls of the high school I work at and heard yelling and shouting. I turned the corner and saw a boy attacking a girl. I quickly got between them and he was enraged, evening threatening me, but I didn’t care, I was more concerned about the young lady he was attacking. He quickly told me that it was none of my business and that was his girlfriend. I stayed between them waiting for assistance and then he walked away. I asked the young lady if she was okay, and shew as crying, but said she was okay and she was tired of him hitting on her. I tried to talk to her, but then he yelled for her to come with him and to my surprise she left and went with him. I tried to stop her, and by the time other teachers and security came they had walked off campus. I was so upset with the whole situation that it took me a few days to get it out of my mind. I never got the young lady’s name or I would have called her in and offered her counseling in hopes that with knowledge and empowerment she would leave that unhealthy relationship for a better one.

Also in college I dated a girl who had been physically abused by her father to the point that she was removed from her home. Ever since then and up until we met, every guy she dated physically abused her and I mean beat her like she meant nothing to them, leaving her with bruises and bloodied lips. She never learned how to separate love from abuse once it had forged together in her head.

I find this to be very sad and dangerous and is one of the issues I work extremely hard to correct because these young ladies are putting themselves in extremely dangerous situations that if not corrected will effect them for the rest of their lives along with any children they have. Girls who grow up witnessing violence, even if it is just heard or sensed (through tension, visual cues) are more likely to date guys who will put their hands on them and boys who grow up in that same situation are more likely to think it’s okay to put their hands on women they claim to love.

It’s extremely important that if you are the victim of abuse that you get help. Check out http://www.thehotline.org or any other resources in your area. Look at the Cycle of Violence and the Power of Control wheels below. It doesn’t get better, only repeats and gets worse.