Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a psychiatric disorder that can occur in people who have experienced or witnessed (exposed to) a traumatic event or events such as a natural disaster, a serious accident, a terrorist act, war/combat, rape or other violent personal assault. – American Psychiatric Association (APA)
June is PTSD Awareness Month. It is an important month for us at The Guidance Center because people – even children – in our communities are struggling with this disorder. With knowledge and understanding of PTSD, we all can do our part to support our friends, neighbors or family members in getting the help they need to improve their lives.
My supervisor in our San Pedro Clinic, Sharon Fetz, LMFT, explains PTSD as something that happens when a person experiences a trauma and their brain is having problems processing this event. They often have nightmares or flashbacks.
Children can absolutely have PTSD, and it can be caused by the reasons noted by APA or reasons such as witnessing domestic violence, losing a parent who could not take care of them or who is deported, losing a parent who died in a non-violent way, or being bullied by peers or siblings.
For both adults and children, there are certain criteria that they must meet in order for their symptoms to be labeled as clinically significant. Criteria includes exposure to trauma, intrusive thoughts, avoidance of memories of things that remind them of the event, negative thoughts or mood about things associated to the event. The adult or child must also be at risk of, or currently have, impairments in their interpersonal relationships, school or job functioning or their own personal health due to PTSD. When children have PTSD, their play may reenact what they witnessed. Some examples of this include a child showing the mom and dad toys fighting or showing on a doll how they were touched inappropriately.
When families come to The Guidance Center for help, they speak to a member of our Access team to describe the concerns they have about their child’s symptoms. Then our Access team connects them with a therapist who has the specific expertise in trauma to help them.
To diagnose a child with PTSD, who is six years old or younger, we look for them to be exhibiting at least one or more of the criteria listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM 5); if the child is older than 6 years old, we look for at least two or more criteria. We also look at the length of time that they have been experiencing the distress. The distress must be present for more than a month for it to be considered PTSD.
When I meet with a client family and learn of their challenges, I try my best to be transparent with them when the following areas of criteria stand out to me: exposure to trauma, intrusive thoughts, avoidance of memories or things that remind them of the event(s), negative thoughts or mood about things associated to the trauma and having challenges being reactive or aroused (physiologically alert, awake, and attentive) by the trauma. Due to a traumatic experience, adults and children may feel like they are back at the time of the event(s), cannot stop thinking about the event(s), may feel detached from their bodies or not feel like they are experiencing reality. These children and adults have trouble functioning and are coming to The Guidance Center to get help to manage feelings they deem as numb or intense.
To help children and teens with PTSD at The Guidance Center, we guide them through one of the evidence-based treatment models in which we are certified: Trauma Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT) or Managing and Adapting Practices Trauma Focus (MAP-Trauma). Both treatment models have been shown to help children reduce and better manage their symptoms. With therapy, there is hope.
This month and beyond, I want to encourage everyone to see that we all have the power to be supportive and patient with those who may have PTSD. Their substance use, isolation or unwillingness to talk about it might be the only coping mechanism they know. We can support each other and those who may have PTSD by being there for them, listening to their stories and sharing helpful resources.
For more information and resources for children who have PTSD, visit The National Child Traumatic Stress Network.
Kristin McNeese, LCSW is a clinical therapist at The Guidance Center’s San Pedro Clinic where she helps guide children and families struggling with mental health conditions or abuse toward positive and productive futures. She is passionate about helping children and teens process their trauma. Before joining The Guidance Center team in 2017, McNeese worked as a Community Based Mental Health Therapist. McNeese earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology at Cal Poly Pomona and a Master of Social Work Degree at Azusa Pacific University.