Traumatized child more likely to get PTSD if parent had it

Study examines children exposed to Grad missile attacks in Beersheba during Operation of Cast Lead.

November 12, 2013 19:06
2 minute read.
Stress [illustrative photo]

Stress worried smoking cigarette 311 (R). (photo credit: TIM WIMBORNE / Reuters)


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Children who are exposed to traumatic events are more likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) if their parents suffer from PTSD as well, even if the child’s traumatic experience is unrelated to the parents’. So say researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, who recently published their findings in the Journal of Depression & Anxiety.

Headed by Prof. Danit Shahar and Prof. Drora Fraser, the researchers from the Beersheba university’s department of epidemiology and health services evaluation were studying the nutrition habits of Beersheba preschool children in 2008. During the study, Operation Cast Lead began, and families they were evaluating were exposed to ongoing Grad missile attacks from the Gaza Strip.

Dr. Vered Kaufman-Shriqui, who was conducting the research as part of her doctoral thesis, spoke with the preschool psychiatric unit at Soroka University Medical Center and, in collaboration with Dr. Michal Faroy and Dr.

Gal Meiri, broadened her study to include the children’s mental state as well.

Funding and collaborating on the study was the Association for Planning and Development of Services for Children and Youth at Risk and their Families, American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (ASHALIM-JDC).

The researchers examined the relationship between post-traumatic symptoms, and socio-demographic and family variables (such as family size or socioeconomic status), as well as psychosomatic symptoms among children who were exposed to Grad missile attacks in the city during Operation Cast Lead, which lasted from the end of December 2008 to January 2009. They interviewed 160 mothers of preschool children (aged four to six-and-a-half) about post-traumatic and psychosomatic symptoms their children experienced, as well as about the mothers’ own response to the war.

The results showed that 8.4 percent of mothers and 21% of children were suffering substantially from PTSD symptoms.

In adults, PTSD symptoms include intrusive, upsetting memories of the event; flashbacks; nightmares; feelings of intense distress when reminded of the trauma; and intense physical reactions to reminders of the event, such as a pounding heart, rapid breathing, nausea, muscle tension and sweating.

The symptoms are somewhat different in school-aged children, who may not have flashbacks or problems remembering parts of the trauma, the way adults with PTSD often do. However, children might put the events of the trauma in the wrong order. They might also think there were signs that the trauma was going to happen, and therefore think they will see these signs again before another trauma occurs.

Children this age might also show signs of PTSD in their play, such as repeating a part of the trauma. For example, a child might always want to play shooting games after he sees a school shooting. However, these games do not make their worry and distress go away. Children may also fit parts of the trauma into their daily lives.

In teens, some PTSD symptoms resemble those of adults. One difference is that teens are more likely than younger children or adults to show impulsive and aggressive behaviors.

The researchers found that there was no correlation between particular socio-demographic variables and a diagnosis of post-traumatic symptoms.

The only risk factor that did correlate with a diagnosis of PTSD in children was having a mother who also suffered from these symptoms. Children who developed PTSD symptoms also had more psychosomatic complaints, such as constipation, diarrhea and headaches.

The study bolsters the existing body of knowledge regarding the importance of evaluating and treating parental responses in times of stress, the authors said. Parents are often the key to understanding children’s responses generally and specifically during such times.

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