When children witness or experience a potentially traumatic event, such as a car accident, a sports injury, a physical or sexual assault or violence, as many as 1 in 5 will develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
However, researchers found that a new approach, called the Child and Family Traumatic Stress Intervention (CFTSI), was able to prevent chronic and sub-clinical PTSD in 73 percent of children.
The intervention, which focuses on improving communication between child and caregiver, reduced PTSD symptoms in children – which can include reliving a traumatic experience, sleep disturbances, emotional numbness, angry outbursts or difficulties concentrating – and led toward recovery more quickly than a comparison intervention. The CFTSI approach helps children learn coping skills by recognizing and managing their own traumatic stress symptoms.
“This is the first preventative intervention to improve outcomes in children who have experienced a potentially traumatic event, and the first to reduce the onset of PTSD in kids,” said lead study author Steven Berkowitz, MD, associate professor of Clinical Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and director of the Penn Center for Youth and Family Trauma Response and Recovery.
“If this study is replicated and validated in future studies, this intervention could be used nationally to help children successfully recover from a traumatic event without progressing to PTSD.”
For the study, 106 children ranging from 7 to 17 years in age, along with their caregiver, were randomly assigned to participate in either the four-session Child and Family Traumatic Stress Intervention or a four-session supportive comparison intervention. Both interventions were provided within 30 days following the child’s exposure to a distressing event. Children were referred to the study by police, a forensic sexual abuse program, or the local pediatric emergency department in an urban city in Connecticut.
The CFTSI program started with a preliminary baseline evaluation to determine the child’s trauma history and also a preliminary visit with the caregiver, emphasizing the caregiver’s crucial role in the process.
During the first session, the main focus was on improving communication between the child and caregiver, as well as other supportive measures. At the end of the next two sessions, the clinician, caregiver and the child discussed and decided on a homework assignment designed to help with coping skills. Certain behavioral techniques were then discussed with the child that would help pinpoint and control traumatic stress symptoms.
The study now appears online in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.
Future studies will be needed to solidify the success of this intervention, but researchers hope that quick and effective interventions like CFTSI can be applied early to prevent the development of PTSD.