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What is PTSD and what causes PTSD in foster youth?

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD is a psychiatric disorder that occurs in those that have witnessed or experienced a traumatic event or a set of events/circumstances. These events are those that typically threaten, or cause harm and the trauma is what triggers PTSD. Some examples of situations that cause PTSD for children in care are abuse (physical, emotional, or sexual), neglect, poverty (such as hunger or homelessness), family separation, bullying, witnessing harm to pets or people, natural disasters or accidents, and parental addiction or mental health issues. This trauma can have many effects on a child’s body, brain, emotions, and behaviors. PTSD is what occurs when a victim relives these traumatic occurrences after these events. Sometimes there are triggers that cause these episodes such as sights, sounds, smells, words, or items that can recreate the trauma in the child’s mind.

Symptoms of PTSD

There are 4 main categories for PTSD symptoms. The categories are intrusions, avoidance, alterations in cognition/mood, and alterations in arousal/activity. It should be noted that to be diagnosed with PTSD a victim of the trauma must have symptoms that last more than a month and the symptoms must cause significant distress or problems to one’s daily functioning.  PTSD symptoms can develop within 3 months of experiencing trauma but can appear later. Unfortunately, for those that are diagnosed with PTSD, symptoms can persist for months or even years.

These are intrusive thoughts such as repeated/involuntary memories, distressing dreams, or flashbacks of traumatic events. These flashbacks can sometimes be vivid to the victim as if they’re reliving the traumatic experience over again or seeing it again.

This is when the victim will try avoiding reminders of traumatic events including avoiding people, places, activities, objects, or situations that can trigger certain memories. There is often an effort to avoid remembering or even thinking about the events and may resist talking about what happened or how they feel about it.

This is the inability to remember important details or aspects of the event; having negative thoughts or feelings that can lead to ongoing and even distorted beliefs about oneself or others; having distorted thoughts about the causes or the consequences of the event that can lead to wrongfully blaming themselves or others; having ongoing fear, horror, anger, guilt, or shame; less interest in activities previously enjoyed; feeling detached estranged from others; or not being able to experience positive emotions.

This can include symptoms such as being irritable and having angry outbursts; behaving recklessly or in self-destructive manners, being hyper-vigilant or one’s surroundings in a suspecting way; being easily startled; and having trouble concentrating or sleeping.

Symptoms in children under 7

Symptoms can look different for children under the age of 7. Occasionally it can be repetitive talking or acting out the traumatic event; having irritable outbursts and tantrums; excessive crying; increased fear of being alone or in the dark; heightened sensitivity to sounds; having changes in their sleeping, eating, and using the restroom; separation anxiety or clinginess; behavior regression such as thumb sucking, baby talk, or bed wetting.

Treatment and Therapy options for PTSD

The goal of treatment is to teach skills that can address the symptoms of PTSD. There are options like psychotherapy that implements techniques such as cognitive therapy, exposure therapy, and EMDR. Medication can be combined with psychotherapy treatment to help with symptoms. It is also important to establish a good support system and continued coping skills.

This is a type of talk therapy used to recognize ways of thinking (patterns) that are keeping you stuck (like being stuck in negative beliefs of yourself).

Behavioral therapy that helps someone safely face situations or memories that one finds frightening in a way that allows for learning effective coping techniques. This is particularly helpful for people that experience flashbacks and nightmares.

EMDR combines the idea of exposure therapy with a series of guided eye movements. This technique allows one to process traumatic memories and then change the reaction to those memories.

Children with PTSD can participate in therapies such as Cognitive behavioral therapy, EMDR, long-term relation-based therapies, as well as play therapy.

Why is PTSD awareness important for foster youth?

Most people do not associate PTSD or PTSD Awareness with children. However, for children and youth in foster care, many of them have experienced trauma and been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. 1 in 4 youth in foster care will experience PTSD symptoms and former foster children are twice as likely to experience PTSD in adulthood than those who have experienced war/combat. Awareness of childhood PTSD is important because it can help others to understand and have empathy, banish their judgment, and reduce the number of those suffering alone. One of the most important tools we have in foster care is trauma-informed parenting for an understanding of how trauma has such a huge impact on the minds of the youth in care.

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