stress vs. trauma: one is not like the other
Occasional stress is a disruptive but normal part of a child’s life: whether it’s getting ready on time to catch the bus, having a lot of homework, or starting a new school. Children often have a difficult time managing their stress and need some guidance, which, as adults with experience, we can often provide if we take the time. Ideas like outdoor play, reading time, talking about the challenge, and taking some quiet time are all familiar ways we can teach them.
Trauma can also be disruptive to daily life, but is much more severe and complex, and it is critical to deal with it in a different way for the sake of the child. Trauma can be a sudden event or a series of events that dramatically impacts the child’s life and changes the way he perceives the world. A traumatic event can be life-threatening or can deeply affect his sense of safety. Children who experience trauma have more difficulties regulating their behaviors and emotions, and may engage in risky behaviors. Studies show now that trauma actually affects the development of the victim’s brain.
Addressing trauma is now the expectation, not the exception, in behavioral health, and the good news is trauma is treatable. This is especially true for children experiencing mental health issues as they can receive the treatment they need when they most need it, and improve their opportunities to lead mentally healthier lives.
Trauma-informed care (TIC) involves a broad understanding of traumatic stress reactions and common responses to trauma. Trauma-focused cognitive behavior therapy (TF-CBT) more specifically is an evidenced-based practice that research shows is an excellent option for children. A structured, short-term treatment model, TF-CBT improves the mental health of children who experience any number of emotional, behavioral and mental effects caused by trauma, including depression and anxiety, which are some of the more common diagnoses among children.
ChildTrends.com notes that TIC and TF-CBT aid children by:
- helping therapists, physicians and parents recognize and respond to the needs of children who experience trauma,
- developing common goals for treatment,
- emphasizing that everyone in a child’s life has a role to play in their treatment, and
- supporting parents and caregivers with their ability to come to terms with their own responses to trauma
For the past few years at Stanford University, neuroscientist Amy Garrett, PhD, has been studying how brain activation changes in adolescents as a result of this therapy. She is now an Assistant Professor at UT Health Department of Psychiatry, working with Clarity Child Guidance Center to treat children with TF-CBT through an brain imaging research study. In order to understand how the brain recovers from trauma, she will conduct functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI) scans at different stages of treatment. FMRI is safe and there is no radiation, injections, or blood draws. This study will provide much-needed information about recovery from brain abnormalities in abused youth and could lead to improvements in behavioral treatments for patients.
Remember, although adults and children alike experience varying degrees of stress, it is a part of everyday living and can be successfully managed. Trauma, on the other hand, is a different experience that could significantly change a child’s ability to manage everyday life and requires more specific types of treatment. If you feel you or your child needs this kind of help, we encourage you to find a qualified mental health professional. If you’re interested in participating in the UT Health Study, please call 210-567-8189 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
With an eye to the best for our kids,
Michele Autenrieth Brown is the director of development for Clarity Child Guidance Center. She became passionate mental health advocate after trying to navigate the system of care to support a family member. When she is not shuttling kids to practices or spending time with her husband, Michele is perfecting just what to say to get the perfect eye roll and sigh from her teen and pre-teen children.
If you are experiencing an emergency, please call 9-1-1. If you need help locating mental health resources in your area, visit the Bexar County Community Resource website, call your local health department or the National Alliance Mental Illness's helpline at 1-800-950- NAMI (6264).