PTSD in children is real. So are myths and misconceptions about this mental illness. Because they are so prevalent, many people are ignorant of or deny the existence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in kids.
This article, the second in an ongoing series, examines the following commonly held myths and misconceptions about PTSD in children:
1. Only soldiers get PTSD.
2. It’s not PTSD. It’s bad parenting.
3. Kids don’t remember what happened when they were babies.
4. Newborns don’t feel pain.
5. A fetus can’t experience trauma.
Myth #1: Only Soldiers Get PTSD
Combat veterans, do develop PTSD. The misconception is that only soldiers get PTSD. That statement can only be true if war is the only cause of trauma, and if only soldiers experience trauma during war. But many other people, including children, experience the trauma of war and are affected by it. For some of those people, including children, the trauma develops into PTSD. Therefore, though combat veterans are at risk of developing PTSD, soldiers aren’t the only people afflicted by it.
Myth #2: It’s Not PTSD, It’s Bad Parenting
Parents rather than PTSD are blamed for many childhood behaviors. And for good reason. Kids with PTSD often behave much like children who have been poorly parented. Furthermore, bad parenting practices such as neglect, abuse, and longterm inconsistency can cause PTSD. But bad parenting can’t explain the behaviors of kids raised in homes filled with structure, love, consistency, and compassion. But PTSD can explain troubling behaviors exhibited by children who have experienced trauma beyond a parent’s control.
Myth #3: Kids Don’t Remember
Few people remember much of their first three years of life but early memories, good and bad, are stored in the brain as images, smells, and sounds. The National Child Trauma Stress Network (NCTSN) website says this about early childhood trauma: “Traumatic events have a profound sensory impact on young children. Their sense of safety may be shattered by frightening visual stimuli, loud noises, violent movements, and other sensations associated with an unpredictable frightening event. The frightening images tend to recur in the form of nightmares, new fears, and actions or play that reenact the event.”
Good memories are stored in much the same way, according to Joy D. Osofsky’s book, Clinical Work with Traumatized Young Children. She quotes a 2007 study about the neurobiology of stress and development to explain the healing power of a secure caregiver relationship for infants who’ve been traumatized. “…a secure relationship with a caregiver provides the most potent defense against overwhelming stress…caregivers and family systems that function well are the best predictors of good adjustment over time for children traumatized in their early years.”
That study wasn’t around when our son was born, but my husband understood the importance of a healthy caregiving relationship with our baby. When we visited NICU, Hiram rubbed his tiny cheek with his finger. When Allen was older, whenever he was frightened or worried or sad, he asked, “Dad, Mom, rub my cheek.”
Like our son, everyone remembers events from the first three years of life. But because we were non-verbal then, we remember those memories differently. When this truth is understood a third misconception can be laid to rest.
Myth #4: Newborns Don’t Feel Pain
Unbelievable as it sounds, the consensus in pediatric medicine for more almost a century was that newborns didn’t feel pain. This myth was accepted as fact as late as the 1980s. Thankfully, Dr. Kanwaljeet Anand arrival on the scene in the early 1980s precipitated a much needed change.
An article published in the New York Times in February of 2008 described how Dr. Anand conducted a series of clinical trials that proved operations on newborns performed without anesthetic produced a massive stress response. However, surgeries conducted with potent pain medication reduced stress and complications while dramatically improving the chances for survival.
Once Dr. Anand’s astounding findings were published, the practice of newborn surgery changed almost overnight. As the Times article said, “Today adequate pain relief for even the youngest infants is the standard of care, and the treatment that so concerned Anand two decades ago would now be considered a violation of medical ethics.”
Myth #5: A Fetus Can’t Experience Trauma
It’s easy to see why people want to believe this myth. We want to believe a mother’s womb protects the fetus from trauma. But, the results of several recent studies show that this assumption is far from true.
A summary of a 2004 study about the impact of trauma on the embryo and fetus states that “early pre- and post-natal experiences, including early trauma, are encoded in the implicit memory of the fetus….These memories will travel with us into our early days of infancy and beyond and more importantly, these early experiences set our ongoing physiological and psychological regulatory baselines.”
Another study published in 2007 measured levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which a body under stress pumps into the blood, in pregnant women. The study “found that, at a gestational age of 17 weeks or greater, higher cortisol levels in the mother’s blood were reflected in higher levels in the amniotic fluid.” As these two studies show, a fetus can experience effects of trauma and stress.
Ignorance Isn’t Bliss
In some ways, I was happier when I believed children couldn’t suffer from PTSD. But they do, and they will live with undiagnosed, untreated PTSD until these myths and misconceptions are laid to rest. That’s why I’m glad to know the truth and to share it with you so our kids with special needs can live happier, mentally healthy lives. How about you?