Reducing the Long-Term Impact of Traumatic Events

PTSD results from traumatic events such as being raped and beaten, witnessing or experiencing serious injury or death in war, or feeling your life was threatened during a car accident. In younger kids, the re-experiencing of the event may be a different phenomenon. That is, upsetting dreams about the event may quickly change to thoughts or nightmares about monsters or other anxiety provoking thoughts and experiences. In addition, unlike adults who tend to re-live the trauma through flashbacks, kids tend to re-live it through make believe (e.g., a child may smash his toy cars together after a car accident). Given that they cannot rely on their verbal explanatory or cognitive skills to the same extent as adults, children are also more likely to turn their psychological stress into physical symptoms such as tummy and headaches.

Research has generally shown that the severity, duration, and proximity of an individual's exposure to traumatic event(s) are the most important factors affecting the likelihood of developing this disorder. In addition, research has also confirmed that no amount of pre-existing psychological "fitness" can protect a person from developing PTSD if the severity, duration and proximity to the stressful event is intense enough.

However, not all kids and adults who experience highly stressful events go on to have chronic PTSD symptoms which, by definition, last 3 months or longer.

Recent research out of England, reported in the November 2009 issue of the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, indicates that while the characteristics of the traumatic experience are important to whether or not PTSD develops in children, the way kids think about what happened to them, subsequent to the traumatic event, helps determine whether, and to what extent, those symptoms are maintained over time. The researchers interviewed a sample of 10 to 16 year old kids who had been admitted to a London emergency room due to either a physical assault or a motor vehicle accident. What they found was that the kids' thoughts or appraisals regarding their experience were significantly related to how long their post traumatic symptoms lasted. Examples of the thoughts that helped make symptoms more chronic included "I am going mad", "I will never be the same again", Nobody is there for me", "People can't be trusted" and "I am a weak person". The researchers found that it was these "maladaptive post traumatic appraisals" that predicted the level of symptomotolgy six months after the traumatic event.

The researchers believe that their study points to the importance of early psychological intervention with kids at risk for developing PTSD. Changing kids' thought processes early on may well mitigate the long-term effects of traumatic experiences.

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