Treating PTSD in Kids


NEW ORLEANS, La. (Ivanhoe Newswire) — Two-thirds of kids will be exposed to at least one traumatic event by the time they reach 16. Not every one of those kids will develop post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, but for those who do, there are some guidelines parents should follow.

These are just some of the kinds of events that can cause PTSD in children. And it’s never easy for parents to deal with it. Michael Scheeringa, MD, MPH, Professor of Psychiatry at Tulane University School of Medicine has spent more than 20 years studying PTSD in children as young as three and he says getting the right help for their child can be tough as well.

“It’s hard to find a lot of help sometimes in the mental health field. We have more quality information about the shingles on our roofs and about the cereal on our breakfast table than we have about mental health clinicians,” Dr. Scheeringa stated.

He says when looking for help pediatricians can be a good source to use. And parents should never be afraid to ask difficult questions.

“Have you ever seen a child like mine? How many children have you treated with trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder? What kind of psychotherapy do you plan on doing?” Dr. Scheeringa continued.

The right kind of questions can help your child adjust to their new normal.

Dr. Scheeringa does provide an online PTSD checklist for parents to measure the potential impact of a traumatic event on a young child. To view the checklist, google scheeringa lab.

Contributors to this news report include: Milvionne Chery, Field Producer; Roque Correa, Editor and Videographer. 

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REPORT #2612

BACKGROUND: Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a debilitating and often chronic mental disorder that develops in some children and adolescents following exposure to a traumatic event. Traumatic events are experiences that involve serious harm or threat of harm to oneself or others, such as exposure to interpersonal violence, accidents, natural disasters, and injuries. A majority of children and adolescents will experience a traumatic event by the time they reach adulthood. Although trauma exposure is common, only a minority of children who experience a traumatic event develop PTSD. PTSD is defined by four symptom clusters: intrusion, avoidance, negative alterations in cognition and mood, and hyperarousal. A United States nationwide study of over 6,000 adolescents reported that 62 percent of youths experienced at least one traumatic event in their lifetime, including interpersonal violence, serious accidents or injuries, natural disaster, and death of a loved one, and 19 percent have experienced three or more such events.


SYMPTOMS OF PTSD IN KIDS: How can parents and other adults help children and teens living with undiagnosed, untreated PTSD find the help they need? An understanding of the symptoms of PTSD is a good place to start. Once they develop sophisticated language skills, children may begin to describe unexpected, intrusive thoughts about the initial trauma, or have flashbacks. When reminded of the initial trauma, older children may complain of vague illnesses like stomachaches and headaches. The pain is very real to the child, even though no underlying cause can be diagnosed. Sometimes, children old enough to clearly remember a traumatic event vehemently deny it ever occurred. They would rather bury their pain than recall the reality of the trauma endured. Children suffering from PTSD are often misdiagnosed with attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD). Children may jump when they hear loud noises or become skittish in situations similar to the initial trauma. Kids with PTSD don’t think they’ll live long, so why should they bother making safe choices? They make self-destructive choices and don’t try to maintain relationships. They become depressed or have an overwhelming sense of sadness and hopelessness.


PSYCHOLOGICAL TRAUMA CAN ALTER GENETICS: Childhood trauma can leave what scientists refer to as “epigenetic marks” on a child’s genes. The marks alter gene expression by activating or silencing certain genes. The marks can either turn “on” or “off” certain heritable traits in children since birth. Although scientists have not been able to determine how all of these differences affect long-term health, they have been able to pinpoint how epigenetic changes, following childhood trauma, can alter the expression of cortisol, the neurochemical that is released to trigger the fight or flight response, and to cope with stress. Adam Brown, director of the department of child and adolescent psychiatry at NYU Langone says, “In individuals with PTSD or acute stress disorder, the stress response either doesn’t shut off when the danger is gone, when it’s supposed to, or it gets quickly turned on. Even when the danger is over, small things that remind the person of the danger can trigger cortisol to be released.” Cortisol is also heavily linked to the function of the body’s immune system. Adverse changes in the expression of cortisol can weaken the body’s ability to fight off infection and disease, which may contribute to the increased risk of severe illnesses commonly found in adults who’ve experienced childhood trauma.


* For More Information, Contact:

Keith Brannon, Tulane University Public Relations                Michael S. Scheeringa, MD, MPH