June is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Month

By Jessica Hamblen, PhD and Erin Barnett, PhD, for PTSD: National Center for PTSD

Children and Adolescents Experience PTSD, Too

What events cause PTSD in children?

Any life threatening event or event that threatens physical harm can cause PTSD. These events may include:

  • Sexual abuse or violence (does not require threat of harm)
  • Physical abuse
  • Natural or manmade disasters, such as fires, hurricanes, or floods
  • Violent crimes such as kidnapping or school shootings
  • Motor vehicle accidents such as automobile and plane crashes

PTSD can also occur after witnessing violence. These events may include exposure to:

  • Community violence
  • Domestic violence
  • War

Finally, in some cases learning about these events happening to someone close to you can cause PTSD.

What are the risk factors for PTSD?

Both the type of event and the intensity of exposure impact the degree to which an event results in PTSD. For example, in one study of a fatal sniper attack that occurred at an elementary school proximity to the shooting was directly related to the percentage of children who developed PTSD. Of those children who directly witnessed the shooting on the playground, 77% had moderate to severe PTSD symptoms, whereas 67% of those in the school building at the time and only 26% of the children who had gone home for the day had moderate or severe symptoms (6).

In addition to exposure variables, other risk factors include:

  • Female gender
  • Previous trauma exposure
  • Preexisting psychiatric disorders
  • Parental psychopathology
  • Low social support

Parents have been shown to have protective factors (practice parameters). Both parental support and lower levels of parental PTSD have been found to predict lower levels of PTSD in children.

There is less clarity in the findings connecting PTSD with ethnicity and age. While some studies find that minorities report higher levels of PTSD symptoms, researchers have shown that this is due to other factors such as differences in levels of exposure. It is not clear how a child’s age at the time of exposure to a traumatic event affects the occurrence or severity of PTSD. While some studies find a relationship, others do not. Differences that do occur may be due to differences in the way PTSD is expressed in children and adolescents of different ages or developmental levels.

 

Keystone recognizes June as PTSD month in support of the children we serve who work to manage PTSD.

As in adults, PTSD in children and adolescence requires the presence of re-experiencing, avoidance and numbing, and arousal symptoms. However, researchers and clinicians are beginning to recognize that PTSD may not present itself in children the same way it does in adults.

 What does PTSD look like in children?

Criteria for PTSD include age-specific features for some symptoms.

Elementary school-aged children

Clinical reports suggest that elementary school-aged children may not experience visual flashbacks or amnesia for aspects of the trauma. However, they do experience “time skew” and “omen formation,” which are not typically seen in adults.

Time skew refers to a child mis-sequencing trauma-related events when recalling the memory. Omen formation is a belief that there is a belief that there were warning signs that predicted the trauma. As a result, children often believe that if they are alert enough, they will recognize warning signs and avoid future traumas.

School-aged children also reportedly exhibit post-traumatic play or reenactment of the trauma in play, drawings, or verbalizations. Post-traumatic play is different from reenactment in that post-traumatic play is a literal representation of the trauma, involves compulsively repeating some aspect of the trauma, and does not tend to relieve anxiety.

An example of post-traumatic play is an increase in shooting games after exposure to a school shooting. Post-traumatic reenactment, on the other hand, is more flexible and involves behaviorally recreating aspects of the trauma (e.g., carrying a weapon after exposure to violence).

Adolescents and Teens

PTSD in adolescents may begin to more closely resemble PTSD in adults. However, there are a few features that have been shown to differ. As discussed above, children may engage in traumatic play following a trauma. Adolescents are more likely to engage in traumatic reenactment, in which they incorporate aspects of the trauma into their daily lives. In addition, adolescents are more likely than younger children or adults to exhibit impulsive and aggressive behaviors.

Besides PTSD, what are the other effects of trauma on children?

Besides PTSD, children and adolescents who have experienced traumatic events often exhibit other types of problems. Perhaps the best information available on the effects of traumas on children comes from a review of the literature on the effects of child sexual abuse.

In this review, it was shown that sexually abused children often have problems with fear, anxiety, depression, anger and hostility, aggression, sexually inappropriate behavior, self-destructive behavior, feelings of isolation and stigma, poor self-esteem, difficulty in trusting others, substance abuse, and sexual maladjustment.

These problems are often seen in children and adolescents who have experienced other types of traumas as well. Children who have experienced traumas also often have relationship problems with peers and family members, problems with acting out, and problems with school performance.

Along with associated symptoms, there are a number of psychiatric disorders that are commonly found in children and adolescents who have been traumatized. One commonly co-occurring disorder is major depression. Other disorders include substance abuse; anxiety disorders such as separation anxiety, panic disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder; and externalizing disorders such as attention-deficit/hyperactivitiy disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, and conduct disorder.

How is PTSD treated in children and adolescents?

Although some children show a natural remission in PTSD symptoms over a period of a few months, a significant number of children continue to exhibit symptoms for years if untreated. Trauma Focused psychotherapies have the most empirical support for children and adolescents.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Research studies show that CBT is the most effective approach for treating children. The treatment with the best empirical evidence is Trauma-Focused CBT (TF-CBT). TF-CBT generally includes the child directly discussing the traumatic event (exposure), anxiety management techniques such as relaxation and assertiveness training, and correction of inaccurate or distorted trauma related thoughts.

Although there is some controversy regarding exposing children to the events that scare them, exposure-based treatments seem to be most relevant when memories or reminders of the trauma distress the child. Children can be exposed gradually and taught relaxation so that they can learn to relax while recalling their experiences. Through this procedure, they learn that they do not have to be afraid of their memories.

CBT also involves challenging children’s false beliefs such as, “the world is totally unsafe.” The majority of studies have found that it is safe and effective to use CBT for children with PTSD.

CBT is often accompanied by psycho-education and parental involvement. Psycho-education is education about PTSD symptoms and their effects. It is as important for parents and caregivers to understand the effects of PTSD as it is for children. Research shows that the better parents cope with the trauma, and the more they support their children, the better their children will function. Therefore, it is important for parents to seek treatment for themselves in order to develop the necessary coping skills that will help their children.

Parent Resource: U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs PTSD: National Center for PTSD

Aggression, Tantrums and Refusal—Annoying and Frustrating but Treatable

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Dr. Scherbarth works with a child and his parent to help them understand and relate to each other better by building reasonable and enforceable limits.

The trifecta of terrible problem behavior in children is physical or verbal aggression, with tantrums and refusal to follow instructions. These symptoms are often consistent with the diagnosis of Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD). It is very annoying and frustrating for parents and peers—to say the least. Parents often try their best to manage it—including seeking out anger management for their child—but nothing they try seems to work. That said, ODD is entirely treatable by a clinician skilled in one of several Behavioral Parent Training programs.

ODD is a pattern of behavior for over six months that has three parts: a child or teen being argumentative in general or defiant when given instructions; the child being very angry and irritable most of the time; and at times the child may be vindictive and deliberately trying to make others angry. It can seem from the outside that the child is totally fine one minute and blows up the next minute. This appearance has led many people down the wrong path to think it’s bipolar disorder—especially when the tantrums last 45-90 minutes or when they are very destructive at home or school. However, bipolar disorder is a very different diagnosis.

ODD not only causes frustration in the moment for the parent and child, it also spreads throughout the family’s entire social life at all levels.

Parents of kids with ODD often do not want to go to stores or restaurants anymore for fear that something will set their child off. Parents may hear that other parents don’t want to set up play dates anymore. Schools may send these children home early because of the disruption they cause, or they may totally refuse to enroll these kids altogether. Kids with ODD often have little or no friends, and the friendships they do develop may be very conflicted. Clearly, it takes a serious toll on everyone and this toll creates resentment in the family towards the child and from the child back towards the family.

ODD typically emerges in younger childhood (before age 5). Without treatment, up to 2
5 percent of kids may lose ODD traits on their own; however it persists for many years in half of all kids, whereas the other 25 percent have behavior that starts to become downright cruel or even criminal in nature. With a total of 75 percent of kids with ODD having years of difficult or even criminal behavior ahead of them, it’s clearly to everyone’s advantage to seek treatment by a qualified therapist who goes beyond individual anger management counseling to also include some form of behavioral parent training.

There are a number of risk factors related to development of ODD (Barkley, 2013). Individual factors from the child include having ADHD, a mood/anxiety disorder or just an irritable temperament from birth. Parent factors include if they have ADHD themselves, irritable temperament, high stress due to a number of reasons and/or being young parents. Family social environmental factors include living in an area with a high crime rate, being influenced by delinquent peers, or having conflicted marriages or a conflictual extended family. How parents raise their children is one of the most important factors. Inconsistent parenting, highly negative parenting (or by contrast, low negative but also low discipline parenting), inappropriate expectations, as well as lack of monitoring of the child, and/or low positivity in parenting are all  risk factors.

At least one parent and the child engage in the Coercive Family Cycle (Patterson, 1982). A parent gives an instruction (possibly a harsh instruction or nearly impossible instruction), then the child reacts with negativity and both continue with negativity (yelling, harsh tone, possibly escalation to destruction) until one or the other gives up. It’s not healthy for the child, even if it “works” in the moment. Worst case scenario, the child gets away without having to do what they’re told and the negative behavior reinforced. In the “best case scenario,” the adult is able to force compliance BUT then the child learns the social lesson that to be respected in the family and society, that is that a child has to be big, loud, angry and bad. That’s not a very good outcome.

By contrast, Behavioral Parent Training (BPT) aims to make an impact by changing the parenting factors. It’s NOT about finding better ways to punish children more harshly. Rather, it has two aims—to improve warmth between parents and kids, as well as to build reasonable and enforceable limits. Warmth can be provided by making sure that there’s always positive interaction time and that when the child follows the instructions, good things happen—like acknowledgement and normal daily privileges. Limits include expectations that school work must be completed school work, children are expected to clean up after themselves to whatever extent that they can in relation to their age, destructiveness leads to consequences and rude or obnoxious behavior doesn’t pay off. The consequences for destruction shouldn’t be harsh, just consistent and providing for everyone’s safety.

Of course, BPT has limits. It only addresses the parenting factors. At times, the child’s individual factors (irritability, impulsivity) have to be addressed as well, possibly in conjunction with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or anger management. However, anger management alone is insufficient. A course of treatment may take 3-6 months or even longer, depending on how longstanding the issues are and other factors. Therapy may require a lot of effort and be difficult at times, but it can’t be any more difficult than having these behaviors affecting the family for years or decades.

Behavioral Parent Training can allow the parents to enjoy their kids again, and kids to enjoy their parents. Contact Keystone Behavioral Pediatrics to learn more about how BPT can help.

Resources for Parents/Caregivers:

Centers for Disease Control

Mayo Institute

Child Development Institute

National Institute of Mental Health—DMDD

National Institute of Mental Health—Treatment of children with mental health issues in general

 

November is National Epilepsy Awareness Month

national-epilepsy-monthKeystone Behavioral Pediatrics’ Neuropsychological Assessment Clinic, led by co-directors Rea Anne A. Romero, Ph.D., licensed psychologist, and Rebecca J. Penna, Ph.D., NCSP, neuropsychologist and clinical psychologist, provides comprehensive evaluation of brain functions and processes. The neuropsychological approach is particularly useful for individuals who have experienced a brain injury or other medical conditions that impact the central nervous system, such as epilepsy, as well as other complex clinical conditions that impact the way a person thinks and learns. Following the assessment, a profile of the individual’s processing strengths and needs is developed, which guides treatment, rehabilitation and educational planning.

Parents of children with seizures have a special role.

The national Epilepsy Foundation acknowledges the following critical roles that parents of children with seizures play in their children’s lives:

  1. You are parents and the primary caregivers of your young children. You are the one giving information to the health care team and the primary one working with schools, camps, or other community groups. You are staying up at night worrying, or caring for your child during and after seizures. You want them to stay safe, but may have to balance this with how to let them be kids, and develop independence.
  2. You are a manager. You need to manage your young child’s epilepsy. As your child grows, you need to teach him or her how to manage his epilepsy. If your adult child can’t manage their epilepsy on their own, you may need to continue in the manager role or find someone else or an agency (for example a group home or agency overseeing your child’s care) to manage their care.
  3. You are an advocate. You may have to advocate for your child to get the care they need, to get an appropriate education and any necessary accommodations, and to have their rights respected.
  4. You are an educator. You have to educate so many people (as well as yourself) about epilepsy and how to treat and respond to your child. You want your child to be treated just like anyone else, but this may take work over the years.
  5. You are also a “patient.” Epilepsy affects the whole family – the person with seizures, parents, siblings, grandparents, and more. How it affects you will be different than how it affects the child, other children in the family, or your parents. But it will affect you. As a patient, you’ll have needs too and would benefit from information and support to help you.

Epilepsy and seizures are tough for children and families to bear. It might feel like more than you can handle on your own. Luckily, you don’t have to. Keystone can assess and evaluate your child to provide an individualized treatment and education planning.

Cognitive behavioral therapy has become a successful way to help people through a variety of problems. It has been shown to reduce depression, anxiety, or anger (or more than one of these) in some people with epilepsy. Cognitive behavioral therapy is grounded in the belief that your thoughts guide your feelings and actions. To help your child manage feelings and change actions, we help your child first focus on changing thinking patterns. When your child learns how to focus on her own thoughts instead of outside events or other people, she can have more control over her progress and a greater chance of improving her life.

In many cases, epilepsy co-occurs with other developmental and behavioral issues, for example, autism. We can also provide specific recommendations that relate to educational placement and instructional strategies that can be shared with your child or adolescent’s school. This can include recommendations for testing accommodations (e.g., SAT) if indicated.