How Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Impacts Our Kids

How Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Impacts Our Kids

January 27, 2020 • ByEmily Neal, LCSW

There are varying paths that lead children to Mercy Home, but for many of our kids, traumatic experiences have had a significant impact on their life. Trauma impacts people differently, and it can sometimes lead to post-traumatic stress disorder. According to the Mayo Clinic, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that’s triggered by a terrifying event — either experiencing it or witnessing it.

Emily Neal is the Vice President of Organizational Development & Clinical Operations at Mercy Home. In 17 years with the Home, she has held various positions. She began as a therapist and went on to become the director of admissions and the clinical director before assuming her current role.

We sat down with Neal to talk about PTSD and the different ways she has seen children experience it during her time at Mercy Home.

Q. How common is it to see youth who are experiencing PTSD when they first arrive at Mercy Home?

I’d say at least half of the kids are experiencing the impact of a traumatic experience that they had early in life or recently before coming here. Whatever significant adversities or traumatic experiences that they’ve had are getting in the way of their ability to function because of how it impacted their bodies, which then impacts their behavior and ability to make choices, to evaluate risks to manage their impulses and trust people. 

A lot of times they’re coming to us because they’re getting into trouble in a variety of different settings – in school, all over the community. And certainly, they need to be held accountable for their behavior, but they also need help figuring out how to manage whatever is going on inside of them or around them and their environment so they’re not continuing to experience disruption, risky behaviors, or dangerous coping strategies.

Q. Is there any difference in the way that children experience PTSD versus how adults do?

Yes. I think one benefit of but being an adult is you have more life experience and perspective to help understand what’s happened to you, or to know that what happened or is happening is not right. But for some kids that don’t have that life experience to compare what’s going on in their lives, they may just think it’s normal and that everyone experiences this kind of abuse or maltreatment. So, it can be difficult to imagine a different way of life, which can lead to significant depression and hopelessness. 

Q. As far as kids that you’ve worked with over the years at Mercy Home, are there any common events you’ve seen that lead to PTSD?

Neglect, attachment issues – kids who’ve been transitioned from multiple caregivers throughout their earlier years. That gets in the way of their ability to trust and build relationships with people. 

Certainly, those who have experienced more obvious trauma like physical abuse, sexual abuse, community violence, gang violence. Severe bullying is another one that we’ve seen where kids who, maybe they’re different or have some social skills issues and have really been, in some ways terrorized by peers, both emotionally and physically. That can be really detrimental to a young person’s development

Q. What are some of the ways we treat PTSD for our youth?

Some of it is just baked into our approach and the way that things are set up within the program. We emphasize the importance of predictability and creating a safe container as adult caregivers. We let them know what to expect every day, that there’s a schedule they can rely upon that is going to happen. We really work with the teams to develop that kind of a structure that’s fluid enough to adjust if need be but creates a sense of predictability and safety for kids. I think that’s the foundation. 

There are different types of therapeutic interventions that we have in place, including SMART, which stands for sensory motor arousal regulation therapy. SMART helps our youth get more in touch with their bodies, their energy levels and how to adjust when they need to so they can engage in life more effectively.

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1. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) Mayo Clinic Staff, July 06, 2018.

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