Childhood trauma, by any other name is still traumatic

Childhood trauma and PTSD shutterstock_268132268Editor’s note: Jolene Philo is serving as a special guest contributor to our blog this fall. Here’s the second post in Jolene’s series on PTSD in children that will be featured on our blog every Thursday until Thanksgiving…

As was mentioned in the first post in this series, my first acquaintance with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in children was not intentional. Rather, I stumbled into the world of childhood trauma in 2008 after our son was diagnosed with and treated for his PTSD, the result of repeated, invasive medical trauma that began shortly after birth and continued until he was five.

At the clinic where our 26-year-old son was treated, the therapists devote a considerable amount of time to educating the family members and caregivers of their clients about the condition. The basic information they presented piqued my curiosity so much that, once our son completed his therapy, I began my own research about PTSD in children. That research eventually resulted in a book, Does My Child Have PTSD? What to Do When Your Child Is Hurting from the Inside Out (Familius, October 2015).

Between the initial research and the writing of the book, however, I spent a considerable amount of time swimming in a sea of confusion. Confusion caused by diving into the waters of the relatively new field of study–PTSD in children–where the professional jargon about it seemed to constantly changing. The water teemed with a dizzying array terms such as “trauma,” “PTSD,” “childhood trauma,” and “childhood developmental trauma.” Eventually I created three questions and answers to assist parents like me–and perhaps like you–who want to better understand children who live with trauma.

What Is Trauma?

Dr. Peter A. Levine and Maggie Kline, authors of Trauma-Proofing Your Kids: A Parents’ Guide for Instilling Confidence, Joy and Resilience, describe trauma as an intense experience that suddenly overwhelms a child. In other words, trauma is an event that shocks children and overwhelms them. It takes away their sense of security and control. Without treatment, the “feeling of overwhelm” affects the rest of the child’s life and experiences.

A good friend of mine, Margaret Vasquez is a clinical traumatologist, offers an excellent definition of trauma. To kids, Vasquez says, “trauma is the scary, painful, and yucky stuff that happens.” I love that definition because it shows adults what trauma looks like through the eyes of a child.

What Is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?

Understanding what trauma is in a child’s eyes leads to a second question: what is post-traumatic stress disorder, and how is it different from trauma?

In some ways, PTSD is trauma’s bigger, meaner cousin. Not every child who experiences a traumatic event develops PTSD. It only develops when kids can’t dispel the strong emotions and energy caused by their automatic physical response to a traumatic event. The original event is trapped in the brain, so when events similar to the original trauma occur, the can trigger the stuck memory and cause more emotional damage. If the trapped memories are never released, they infect a person’s thinking. They can lead to unhealthy behaviors and thought patterns.

Because they are children, kids often can’t dispel those strong emotions by themselves. They need someone to process and release any pent-up energy. Children who get that help–the sooner the better after the traumatic event or series of events–are much less likely to develop PTSD. Also, PTSD is not diagnosed until a child continues to exhibit troubling symptoms and behaviors for three months after the original event occurred. Now that you better understand the difference between simple trauma and PTSD, let’s look at one more important question.

What Is Childhood Developmental Trauma?

While swimming around in my sea of confusion, I made an interesting discovery, thanks to a discussion with another mom friend, Sue Badeau. Sue is also a member of The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) advisory board. She explained that the professional jargon about about childhood trauma and PTSD is not very accurate. Experts in the field prefer the term “childhood developmental trauma” over “childhood PTSD” for an excellent reason. Recent brain research shows that trauma that occurs during childhood impacts the brain differently than does trauma experienced during adulthood. That’s why many articles about traumatized children use “childhood developmental trauma” instead of “PTSD in children.”

However, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which mental health clinicians use to diagnose mental health conditions, doesn’t include a specific term for or description of childhood trauma. So at least for now “PTSD is the only trauma-related diagnosis that exists.” It’s the only term available for mental health care therapists for one very practical reason. Insurance companies only pay for mental health conditions listed in the DSM.

Until the DSM language changes, the terms “PTSD” and “childhood developmental trauma” will continue to confuse parents like us and others who care about kids but aren’t mental health care professionals. But childhood trauma, by any other name, is still traumatic. And those of us who love traumatized children need to continue to learn as much as we can. So I hope you stop by next week to learn more as this series continues with a look at several myths and misconceptions associated with childhood trauma.

JoleneGreenSweater.jpgDoes My Child Have PTSD? is designed for readers looking for answers about the puzzling, disturbing behaviors of childen in their care. With years of research and personal expererience, Jolene Philo provides critical information to help people understand causes, symptoms, prevention, and effective diagnosis, treatment, and care for any child struggling with PTSD. Available for pre-order at Amazon.

About Dr. G

Dr. Stephen Grcevich serves as President and Founder of Key Ministry, a non-profit organization providing free training, consultation, resources and support to help churches serve families of children with disabilities. Dr. Grcevich is a graduate of Northeastern Ohio Medical University (NEOMED), trained in General Psychiatry at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation and in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at University Hospitals of Cleveland/Case Western Reserve University. He is a faculty member in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at two medical schools, leads a group practice in suburban Cleveland (Family Center by the Falls), and continues to be involved in research evaluating the safety and effectiveness of medications prescribed to children for ADHD, anxiety and depression. He is a past recipient of the Exemplary Psychiatrist Award from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Dr. Grcevich was recently recognized by Sharecare as one of the top ten online influencers in children’s mental health. His blog for Key Ministry, was ranked fourth among the top 100 children's ministry blogs in 2015 by Ministry to Children.
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1 Response to Childhood trauma, by any other name is still traumatic

  1. Thank you so much Jolene for an insightful article. I have known for years that sometimes drs use a particular term simply because if they don’t insurance won’t cover it. What a crazy world! Love your work and am looking forward to Thursdays and this series of articles.


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