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New research shows pre-school children also suffer from PTSD

OCTOBER 01, 2008

New research findings published today by psychologists at the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London, suggest that even young children can develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in response to traumatic events.  While the reactions of older children, teenagers and adults to traumas such as assaults or natural disasters are well documented, the reactions of pre-school children have previously received very little consideration.

The research was a joint collaboration between the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s with King’s College Hospital and the MRC Cognition and Brain Science Unit Cambridge and the results are published in the October edition of the American Journal of Psychiatry.

One reason for the lack of knowledge about young children is the difficulty in making psychiatric diagnoses in this age group, as they frequently lack the language ability to talk about their feelings and experiences. By using an age-appropriate technique for diagnosing PTSD in young children that relies on parents’ reporting of how their offspring are coping, the researchers were able to investigate the prevalence and course of this disorder in 114 2-10 year old children.  These children had all visited A&E departments in London after a road traffic accident.  According to recent Department of Transport figures some 3,090 children up to 16 years of age were killed or seriously injured on UK roads in 2007, making traffic accidents a significant cause of child injury and mortality in the UK.  

Around 10-15% of children in the study were found to meet the appropriate criteria for a diagnosis of PTSD, a figure that rose significantly when the views of the older children in the study (aged 7 upwards) were also considered. This is quite similar to the rates of PTSD seen in older children and adults. Importantly, the rate of PTSD in the children in this study did not significantly decline from 2-4 weeks after their accident to when they were seen again six months after the accident.

Dr Richard Meiser-Stedman, Lead Researcher on this project at the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s said: “Our findings indicate that the mental health needs of pre-school children caught up in terrifying events should be considered by parents and health services.  This is especially important as young children are not able to access health services on their own and are at such a vulnerable point in their development.”

He continues:  “More research is needed into how PTSD in young children should be treated and how parents can best help their offspring in the aftermath of a trauma.  Our research team now aims to understand what factors lead to some young children developing PTSD while others do not seem to have any serious enduring problems.  This will really help us to develop effective treatments for these children.”

A further pressing need is to consider how best to help young children affected by large-scale disasters, such as earthquakes and war. Previously this research team has developed tools that can identify and treat PTSD, even when very large numbers of children and adolescents have been affected.  By training local teachers and health professionals on how to use these techniques, thousands of young people caught up in tragedies in Bosnia, Sri Lanka and Iran have received proper help.  The race is on to develop similarly effective tools for use with young children who are the victims of mass disasters.

The paper entitled ‘The Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Diagnosis in Preschool- and Elementary School-Age Children Exposed to Motor Vehicle Accidents’ is published in the American Journal of Psychiatry Vol 165, No. 10, October 2008.

The paper’s authors are: Richard Meiser-Stedman (Institute of Psychiatry at King's College London); Patrick Smith (Institute of Psychiatry at King's College London); Ed Glucksman (King's College Hospital); William Yule (Institute of Psychiatry at King's College London); and Tim Dalgleish (MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, Cambridge). Dr Meiser-Stedman was supported in conducting this research by a Peggy Pollak Research Fellowship in Developmental Psychiatry awarded by the Psychiatry Research Trust.
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