Are these signs of mental illness in kids? Or normal responses to childhood trauma?

Someone tweeted this out the other day — “Mental Illness in Kids: The Surprising Warning Signs”. The signs for pre-school and early elementary school-age kids included:

  • Behavior problems in preschool or daycare
  • Hyperactivity way beyond what the other kids are doing
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Persistent nightmares
  • Excessive fear, worrying, or crying
  • Extreme disobedience or aggression
  • Lots of temper tantrums all the time
  • Persistent difficulty separating from a parent (if it goes on for months).

There were two other lists — one for grade-schoolers and another for tweens and teens.

Not once in the article was childhood trauma mentioned as a reason for any of these behaviors. Many child trauma experts are now saying that what psychologists and psychiatrists call “disorders” are behaviors that are reasonable, normal responses to toxic stress caused by trauma during childhood. These traumas include severe and chronic trauma, such as emotional, sexual and physical abuse, neglect; family dysfunctions, such as domestic violence, parents who are alcoholic or addicted to other drugs, a family member incarcerated or diagnosed mentally ill, and losing a parent; and community dysfunction, such as violent neighborhoods or bullying. It can also include traumatic events, such as being a victim of war, natural disaster, a life-threatening disease or accident.

Labeling children’s fear, hyperactivity, excessive disobedience or nightmares as “disorders” has people reaching for mood- and mind-altering drugs as a first and, sometimes, only resort, especially with kids in foster care and group and residential homes.

“Sometimes the kids are just doing what human beings are wired to do under immense traumatic stress. We just don’t understand it, and call it mental illness,” says Charles Wilson, senior director of the  Chadwick Center for Children & Families at Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego, CA.

 Wilson was one of several presenters at the “Psychotropic Summit” that took place Monday and Tuesday in Washington, D.C.

The real name of the summit was:  Because

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