To prevent childhood trauma, pediatricians screen children and their parents…and sometimes, just parents…for childhood trauma

TabithaLawson

Tabitha Lawson and her two happy children

When parents bring their four-month-olds to a well-baby checkup at the Children’s Clinic in Portland, OR, Drs. Teri Petersen, R.J. Gillespie and their 15 other partners ask the parents about their adverse childhood experiences (ACEs).

When parents bring a child who’s bouncing off the walls and having nightmares to the Bayview Child Health Center in San Francisco, Dr. Nadine Burke Harris doesn’t ask: “What’s wrong with this child?” Instead, she asks, “What happened to this child?” and calculates the child’s ACE score.

In rural northern Michigan, a teacher tells a parent that her “problem” child has ADHD and needs drugs. The parent brings the child to see Dr. Tina Marie Hahn, who experienced more childhood trauma than most people. Instead of writing a prescription, Hahn has a heart-to-heart conversation with the parent and the child about what’s happening in their lives that might be leading to the behavior, and figures out the child’s ACE score.

What’s an ACE score? Think of it as a cholesterol score for childhood trauma.

Why is it important? Because childhood trauma can cause the adult onset of chronic disease (including cancer, heart disease and diabetes), mental illness, violence, becoming a victim of violence, divorce, broken bones, obesity, teen and unwanted pregnancies, and work absences.

The CDC’s Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE Study) measured 10 types of childhood adversity: sexual, physical and verbal abuse, and

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Failing schools or failing paradigm?

Roberto is an eight-year-old, former student in my second-grade class.  (All names are pseudonyms.)  In his short life, he’s experienced at least five major life traumas. One: his mother abandoned him when he was a baby. Two: he was placed in foster care with strangers. Three: he joined his father, but shortly after, Daddy was sent to prison. Four: Roberto moved again to live with Grandpop. Grandpop was ill and on house arrest, unable to leave his home, so Roberto was essentially under “house arrest” too, except for school. Roberto came to school, walked the perimeter of the classroom staring out windows, distracting other children. Sometimes, he just walked out of the classroom. His father was eventually released from prison and came to live with Grandpop, but Grandpop soon evicted Daddy after a fight with him. Five: Grandpop died.

Ashley, a bright and engaging nine-year-old, witnessed her stepfather break her stepbrother’s leg with a baseball bat last night. The police were called, invaded her home about 1 a.m., and took her stepfather away. This morning, she came to school as usual, but in a trance, unable to focus.

Jasmine responds much more aggressively. When she is off her medications, and her traumas are re-triggered, her tiny, wiry 45-pound frame can muscle a chair over her head. She screams and curses in guttural tones while heaving the chair at a classmate. She’s being raised by a hesitant uncle in place of her deceased parents.  Jasmine goes home to a darkened row-house, with ”illegal smoke” wafting out the front door that hangs wide open to the street.

Jamar’s been absent from school. After several suicide attempts, he’s at the Crisis Center. Jamar suffered brutal beatings from Mom’s boyfriend, who stuffed a sock in his mouth to muffle his screams. He will come back directly to my classroom from the Crisis Center, without the dedicated adult support he is due.

Ashley, Roberto, Jasmine and Jamar had at least eight other classmates with similar stories in our one classroom at the same time. These four real vignettes are hard to read. They’re tragic. Yet these kids are only a small portion of my class (see “Danny Goes to School).  For the last 13 years, one-half to two-thirds of the students in my urban, public school classrooms have experienced similar lives.  These children are only four of the thousands across only one city: Philadelphia.

Theirs is not a deficit issue. They’re not “sick” or “bad” children; they’re injured.

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What’s missing in climate change discussion? The certainty of trauma…and building resilience

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This spring, a group of more than 160 mental health professionals, resilience-building specialists and mindfulness teachers officially launched the International Transformational Resilience Coalition. Their goal is a challenging one: to raise awareness of how climate change traumatizes communities around the world. The group’s mission is to not only educate the mental health field about this threat, but to also provide preventive solutions before disaster strikes.

The initiative was first envisioned by Bob Doppelt, executive director of The Resource Innovation Group, an BobDoppelt2Oregon-based nonprofit that works across the U.S. to develop new approaches to social-ecological problems, including climate change. Doppelt said that efforts to mitigate climate change have focused on external aspects like fixing and improving infrastructure and developing new forecasting models.

“And throughout all of that work,” he said, “it dawned on me that we were missing what is likely to be the most important issue facing us, and that is the human response to climate change.”

Doppelt said he’d seen this firsthand after Hurricane Sandy devastated communities in southeast Florida, a region where The Resource Innovation Group played a key role in helping the government address climate change readiness. Trained as a counseling psychologist, Doppelt decided that it was essential to develop programs for teaching people how to become resilient as they faced the acute trauma and chronic stress brought on by climate change.

A year-and-a-half ago, The Resource Innovation Group launched its own program to teach mindfulness skills to individuals, organizations and community leaders across the country. The premise is that everyone will need coping techniques as climate change disrupts communities in both profound and subtle ways.

Yet, resiliency is a word that Doppelt uses carefully. “We came up with the term transformational resilience because in many cases the impacts of climate change mean there is no going back to pre-crisis conditions,” he said.

Doppelt also realized that this approach needed an entire network of dedicated mental health and mindfulness professionals – not just one organization like his championing the cause. That’s when he helped organize nearly two dozen founding members, including Dr. Sandra Bloom, co-creator of the Sanctuary Model, and Elaine Miller-Karas, executive director and co-founder, Trauma Resource Institute.

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Are there non-medication alternatives for ADHD treatment?

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[Photo: robert_rex_jackson, Flickr]

The Question: While more than two-thirds of youth diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity use prescription medication to control their symptoms, it’s not uncommon for both parents and children to want a non-drug alternative. The guidelines recommend evidence-based behavior therapy as the primary treatment for pre-school age children; older students are advised to try ADHD medication alone or in combination with behavior therapy. Despite these clear recommendations, clinicians and parents may not know that alternative treatments exist, or how to access them.

The Alternatives: Three types of non-medication interventions have been demonstrated as effective for ADHD.

  • Parental training is designed to help caretakers improve their own communication and discipline practices. The goal is to better manage a child’s behavior by encouraging positive behavior and deterring what might be seen as classic ADHD conduct. Four parent training programs have been shown to reduce disruptive behavior: Triple P; Incredible Years; Parent-Child Interaction Therapy; and, the New Forest Parenting Program.
  • A mental health professional typically delivers psychosocial therapy, counseling a patient and his or her family on a regular basis about how to manage ADHD symptoms. These therapists, however, may not know the latest evidence-based techniques for working with children who have ADHD.
  • Behavioral therapy focuses on teaching children important skills, such as organizing, socializing, and problem solving. Showing parents and teachers how to help manage behavior and symptoms is an essential aspect of behavioral therapy as well. Some of this training may take place in the classroom, depending on the school’s resources, but it can also occur at sites where therapists have been specifically trained in evidence-based ADHD interventions. Two such examples are the Summer Treatment Program at Florida International University’s Center for Children and Families and the Challenging Horizons Program at the Center for Intervention Research in Schools at Ohio University.

These treatment types can overlap. For instance, some therapists use behavioral modification while behavioral therapy programs often have a parent-training component. For more information about the types of treatment and their costs, see this brochure (PDF) produced by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

A Note on Trauma: None of the behavioral

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Research reveals new ways of understanding ADHD

AbrainsMore than 6.4 million U.S. children have received a diagnosis of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Despite the prevalence of ADHD, researchers continue to search for answers about what causes the disorder, why it affects children differently, and how to best treat each individual case.

Related Story: How childhood trauma could be mistaken for ADHD

Three very different studies show the potential for scientific research to offer fresh insight into these unanswered questions.

  • The first study, published in a recent issue of the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, found that the condition might be influenced by a child’s socioeconomic environment.
  • Meanwhile, in 2012, scientists looked at how parenting style affected behavior in children who possessed genotypes associated with ADHD. Their findings, published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, revealed that negative parenting predicted inattention symptoms in certain children.
  • Finally, in the third study, which is currently unpublished, U.C. Berkeley researchers tracked and analyzed long-term outcomes for girls who were both diagnosed with ADHD and experienced severe abuse or neglect. The results indicate that experiencing ADHD and trauma may put some youth at an increased risk for eating disorders, depression and suicide later in life.

Study #1: Dr. Ginny Russell and her colleagues at the University of Exeter set out to better understand how a child’s socioeconomic standing might play a role in the development of ADHD. Russell firmly believes that ADHD is indeed a brain disorder with genetic underpinnings, but she also worries that it has been characterized as a “context-free condition.” Time and again, studies have shown that poor or disadvantaged children are more likely to have ADHD, and this fact struck Russell.

Some researchers have argued that this increased likelihood could be the result of reverse causality, or in other words, that the difficulty of parenting a child with behavioral problems might lead to economic hardship and divorce. In Russell’s study, which used data from a longitudinal study of more than 19,000 children in the United Kingdom, low-income families were more likely to have a child with ADHD – but that couldn’t be traced back to reverse causality. In fact, household income for families with an ADHD-diagnosed child didn’t decline over a period of several years compared to families without a diagnosis. Both sets of families had matching earnings at the start.

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How childhood trauma could be mistaken for ADHD

 

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[Photo credit: woodleywonderworks, Flickr]

Dr. Nicole Brown’s quest to understand her misbehaving pediatric patients began with a hunch.

Brown was completing her residency at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, when she realized that many of her low-income patients had been diagnosed with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

These children lived in households and neighborhoods where violence and relentless stress prevailed. Their parents found them hard to manage and teachers described them as disruptive or inattentive. Brown knew these behaviors as classic symptoms of ADHD, a brain disorder characterized by impulsivity, hyperactivity, and an inability to focus.

When Brown looked closely, though, she saw something else: trauma. Hyper-vigilance and dissociation, for example, could be mistaken for inattention. Impulsivity might be brought on by a stress response in overdrive.

“Despite our best efforts in referring them to behavioral therapy and starting them on stimulants, it was hard to get the symptoms under control,” she said of treating her patients according to guidelines for ADHD. “I began hypothesizing that perhaps a lot of what we were seeing was more externalizing behavior as a result of family dysfunction or other traumatic experience.”

Considered a heritable brain disorder, one in nine U.S. children—or 6.4 million youth—currently have a diagnosis of ADHD. In recent years, parents and experts have questioned whether the growing prevalence of ADHD has to do with hasty medical evaluations, a flood of advertising for ADHD drugs, and increased pressure on teachers to cultivate high-performing students. Now Brown and other researchers are drawing attention to a compelling possibility: Inattentive, hyperactive, and impulsive behavior may in fact mirror the effects of adversity, and many pediatricians, psychiatrists, and psychologists don’t know how—or don’t have the time—to tell the difference.

Though ADHD has been aggressively studied, few researchers have explored the overlap between its symptoms and the effects of chronic stress or experiencing trauma like maltreatment, abuse and violence. To test her hypothesis beyond Baltimore, Brown analyzed the results of a national survey about the health and well-being of more than 65,000 children.

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Am I really the worst? A day in the life of parenting special needs children

AfamilyThe other day after a particularly lively visit to PetSmart with my husband and our two special needs children, a woman who had been in the store at the same time drove up and said: “You are the worst parents I have ever seen.” She drove off before I could respond, not that I had a witty comeback. To clarify, no animals were hurt (or even handled), nothing was damaged and we did not leave any messes for store employees to clean up. We were probably the loudest family in the store, but that is normal in our world.

I am confident I cannot possibly be the worst parent out there.

My children, who both struggle with multiple disabilities, had a fun outing to the pet store with two parents who love them dearly. Despite their challenges, they are on the honor roll at school, play sports and engage in other extracurricular activities and have received awards for their accomplishments. Of course, it is easy to listen and accept negative comments of someone who sees my life for less than 15 minutes and makes a faulty assessment. I am like every other parent: I worry. I have doubts and fears. I doubt myself. I question if I am doing enough.

Most parents worry about their children, but parents of special needs children need to know the world is a better place because they are in it. We are parents who have been to more medical appointments with our young children than most adults have been to in their whole lives.  Our children often have had multiple diagnoses yet don’t really “fit” any of them. We sometimes feel isolated because our children don’t seem to fit into any group, even the “special needs” ones. We’ve scoured books, magazines and web sites in the hopes of finding something new that might be effective for our children’s needs. We feel exhausted, overwhelmed and incompetent on a daily basis but still get up every morning and try to provide the best for our children. We fight schools, doctors, friends and even family members every day just to get them to understand the basic needs of our children. And after all of that, we have to put a positive spin on some very ugly comments our children hear on a regular basis.

To paraphrase the late Erma Bombeck, God is looking down from heaven and pairing children with appropriate parents. When He chooses parents for a handicapped child, He decides they must be happy so the child can know laughter; they cannot have too much patience or they will drown in a sea of self-pity and despair; they must have a sense of self and independence so they will be able help the child who is in her or his own world function. They must to be a little bit selfish to separate themselves from the child occasionally to survive. They will see clearly ignorance, cruelty and prejudice and be able to rise above it.

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