Why the Spotlight Is on PTSD in Children

shutterstock_125301275Thank you for stopping by for the sixth post in Jolene Philo’s weekly series about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in children. Last week’s post discussed what happens when a person, child or adult, responds to a perceived threat. The Instinctual Trauma Response (ITR) model explained the seven responses the brain makes when a person goes through a traumatic event.

The ITR model made a great deal of sense to me when at age 26, our son was diagnosed with PTSD caused by frequent, invasive, and lifesaving medical treatment he experienced from birth to age 5. At the same time, the answers provided by the model led to several more questions. How do therapists know what goes on in the brain during trauma? How are successful treatment models developed? What had happened in the years between our son’s birth in 1982 and his treatment in 2008 that moved awareness of PTSD in children and adults from relative obscurity into the spotlight?

From Soldier’s Heart to PTSD

To answer those questions, I began to research to find out when PTSD was first identified as a mental illness. I discovered that thousands of years ago, an ancient Egyptian combat vet described the condition in his journal. Descriptions of it can also be found in medieval literature and by physicians in the 1600s and 1700s. PTSD is first mentioned in this country after the Civil War when it was called “soldier’s heart.” The condition is discussed and renamed in every subsequent American war through the 1950s. In 1952, it was called stress response syndrome in the first Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-I). In 1982, DSM-III settled on the current terminology, post-traumatic stress disorder.

The Perfect Storm of Breakthroughs about PTSD in Children

As you can see, the field of adult onset PTSD has been around for years. But PTSD in children didn’t land in the spotlight until a series of events occurred in the 1980s and 1990s.

Breakthrough #1: These events began, strangely enough, in 1989 with the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. As countries fell, government orphanages was discovered. Families around the world were moved by the terrible conditions in the orphanages and rushed to adopt neglected infants, toddlers, and older children. Everyone involved believed that love would be enough to heal the ill effects of early neglect and that the children would thrive. In some cases, they did. But some children experienced a host of issues: developmental delays, language delays, behavioral issues, and an inability to bond with their new family members. Parents turned to mental health counselors, child psychiatrists, and child psychologists for help. This large influx of families seeking mental health care moved therapists to find answers for their clients.

Breakthrough #2: The second event came in 1990 with the publication of Dr. Lenore Terr‘s groundbreaking book, Too Scared to Cry. The book details the longitudinal study she began in 1976. The study examines the responses of twenty-six California children and their bus driver who escaped after being kidnapped from a bus after a school-sponsored day camp and buried in a rock quarry for sixteen hours. Terr interviewed the victims soon after their escape and periodically thereafter. In doing so, she discovered patterns of behavior that are now recognized as symptoms of childhood developmental trauma.

Breakthrough #3: During the 1990s, child psychiatrist Dr. Bruce Perry began studying and treating traumatized children. His work continues to this day and is described in greater detail at the ChildTrauma Academy website (www.childtrauma.org). If you want to learn more about PTSD in children, many of his books are fascinating and accessible reads about the subject.

Breakthrough #4: While Terr and Perry were conducting their groundbreaking work, medical imaging technology was making rapid advances.CAT scans were introduced in the 1980s. MRIs came into being at about the same time. In the 1990s, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), used to create maps showing which parts of the brain are involved in different mental tasks, entered the picture. Thanks to those technologies, doctors, researchers, and therapists could use images to make connections between brain activity and outward behaviors.

The Perfect Storm Is Not Abating

Thanks to this perfect storm of events, a new field of study came into being: childhood developmental trauma. The storm shows no signs of abating as research about trauma in children continues. Monthly, sometimes weekly, study results are released that improve understanding and treatment of childhood trauma. That’s hopeful news for parents who witness the imperfect storms raging in their traumatized children.

Future posts in this series will delve into what new research has revealed about PTSD in children: how to recognize symptoms, as well as how the condition is diagnosed, treated, and can be prevented. All of which I hope will encourage parents to persevere as you raise traumatized kids and help them heal.

Jolene_Blue_dressCongratulations to Jolene Philo for receiving a “starred” review in Publisher’s Weekly (the top review publication in the U.S.) for Does My Child Have PTSD? A starred review means the book should get a second look from libraries, book stores, and other entities that can get it into the hands of families who need it. This is a truly special honor…this is the first such honor ever received by her publisher (Families). Available  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, www.church4everychild.org was ranked fourth among the top 100 children's ministry blogs in 2015 by Ministry to Children.
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2 Responses to Why the Spotlight Is on PTSD in Children

  1. Wanda Parker says:

    Thank you for this series. My husband suffers from childhood PTSD for which he never received counseling. He went through two horrific eye surgeries,at ages5 and 6, and then the aftermath of continual teasing, even by adults. His parents thought it best if it was never discussed so he was never allowed to share his emotions. It was the1940s so parents weren’t allowed to be with their children in the hospital. The other night he told me, for the first time-we’ve been married for48 years, how the doctor showed him an eye ball in a dish and said that is what they would be doing with his eye. He was terrified. He has been reading your articles and underlying what he has experienced and what he has lived with trying to escape his whole life. Thank you. It is helping to bring healing in many ways.


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