Tag Archives: Childhood trauma

Science Monday: Child PTSD


Today’s psychopathology class focuses on child related problems. Given the societal focus on ADHD and Asperger’s, our class will hang out there. However, I want to bring to your attention some work in the area of family violence and childhood trauma reactions. Gayla Margolin and Katrina Vickerman (of USC) published 2 articles in a 2007 (38:6) issue of Professional Psychology: Research and Practiceon the topic of PTSD in children exposed to family violence.

Article one (pp 613-619) provides an overview. First, they recognize that some kids have PTSD without a single discrete precipitating and/or life-threatening event. It appears that prolonged exposure to violence (e.g., domestic violence, physical abuse, sexual abuse, community violence) likely has a deleterious impact on children. Some 30% of kids living with both parents experience domestic violence. Some 5-10% of kids experience severe physical abuse. One article summarizing a number of studies suggested that somewhere between 13 and 50% of kids exposed to family violence qualify for a PTSD diagnosis. In foster home and clinic studies, the number with PTSD seems higher, especially in girls. Not every child who experiences violence shows signs of PTSD. Severity and frequency of exposure to violence probably matters most. What makes family violence so troubling is that the child is faced with the constant threat of additional episodes.

What are the common domains of impairment related to complex trauma exposure? Affect regulation (inability to modulate anger, chronic flooding of negative affect), information processing (concentration, learning difficulties, missing subtle environmental nuances, overestimation of danger, preoccupied with worry about safety), self-concept (shame, guilt), behavioral control (aggression, proactive defenses, and substance abuse), interpersonal relationships (trust), and biological processes(delayed sensorimotor development (p. 615).

The authors repeat a previous suggestion of a new diagnosis: Developmental Trauma Disorder(DTD) to adequately capture the picture of youth trauma reactions to family violence. Criteria include: repeated exposure to adverse interpersonal trauma, triggered pattern of repeated dysregulation of affect, persistently altered attributions and expectancies about self and other, and evidence of functional impairment.

In their second article (pp. 620-628), the authors summarize typical treatments for children: reexposure interventions(to help the child understand and gain mastery over their past experiences that intrude. This is done primarily by a trauma interview where therapists work directively to bring fragments of the story together into a coherent whole and meaning and safety are explored), cognitive restructuring and education about violence exposure (goal to undo lessons learned, practice thought stopping, and to normalize reactions), emotional recognition and expression (to attend to and understand connections between emotions, thoughts, and behaviors), social problems solving, safety planning for those not able to be out of potentially violent environments, and parenting interventions.

Do any of these treatments work? It appears several do. I’ll mention just one here:Trauma-focused CBT for child abuse victims (by Cohen, Mannarino, and Deblinger. That intervention is published in their 2006 Guilford Press book, Treating trauma and traumatic grief in child and adolescents.   

We should not underestimate the impact of family and community violence on children. There are many kids labeled bi-polar, ADHD, personality disordered, oppositional (and worse) who carry within their body the impact of violence. They might look like a gang-banger or a thug who’d kill you because you scuffed his shoes, but they likely are hypervigilant and only read part of the environmental cues to determine if they are in danger.

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Filed under Abuse, Anxiety, counseling science, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Psychology