Research of PTSD in Children Highlights Improved Therapy Techniques

Published: February 24, 2015

Research of PTSD in Children Highlights Improved Therapy Techniques

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – Post-traumatic stress disorder long has been documented in veterans returning from overseas campaigns, but one Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi researcher has found that trauma doesn’t arise solely from foreign battlefields, and events closer to home also can have a debilitating impact on a sensitive segment of the population: children.

Dr. Stephen Lenz, Assistant Professor in the Department of Counseling and Educational Psychology, in his studies of trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy and adolescents, found that exposure to life-changing events is common, and the detrimental influences may not be caused by factors and events that many adults associate with PTSD.

“Recent research came out showing that about 40 percent of children and adolescents have been physically assaulted in some way within the last year, whether that’s at school or by a parent, and that about 1 out of every 5 kids has witnessed some sort of violence,” said Lenz. “You don’t have to have been in a near-death car accident to experience the symptoms of PTSD; you just have to have been part of a traumatic experience.”

Lenz’s research focused on dozens of studies and the effectiveness of a type of therapy, which was developed specifically for children, becoming one of the leading treatments for trauma and PTSD in youths. The approach, referred to as Trauma Focused-Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT), involves the child and parent or guardian, and uses a variety of methods, including focusing on coping skill development and relaxation training and creative avenues for communication.

About 7 percent to 8 percent of the U.S. population will have PTSD at some point, according to the National Center for PTSD, while the National Institute of Mental Health estimates that 4 percent of teens age 13-18 will develop PTSD in their lifetime.

The threat to youths impacted by trauma, Lenz found, is that prolonged distress has a distinct harmful influence on the mind and body.

“When people experience the symptoms of PTSD over time they become vulnerable to self-harm and suicide,” said Lenz. “Two out of 5 kids who we would say have PTSD also meet the criteria for having a major depressive disorder … that’s two weeks of severely impaired functioning. And it’s not just sadness – it’s substantial changes in mood and sleep patterns. It’s changes in weight and physiology, and a hopelessness that you never want to see in a child.”

Lenz’s research centered on peer-reviewed publications documenting the use of TF-CBT in 1,860 children and adolescents, including 1,106 girls and 754 boys across age, ethnic lines and nationalities. Analysis focused on studies using TF-CBT versus those using a wait list or no treatment and those using other treatment methods. The overall analysis, according to Lenz, found that TF-CBT was “exceptionally superior” to no treatment or being wait listed and “moderately superior” to alternative treatments.

“The fact that we have detected across 21 different studies that this particular type of therapy can not only treat the symptoms of PTSD, but also the co-occurring depression, is great,” said Lenz. “What we found is it doesn’t matter how old you are, what ethnic background you’re from, or what type of trauma you experienced. It works about the same for people in all those groups, which is very heartening.”