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

Minds Matter: Collaborating to Strengthen Management of Psychotropic Medications for Children and Youth in Foster Care. (All the presentations’ PowerPoints and handouts are here.) It came about because of a GAO report commissioned by U.S. Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del) that showed 21 to 39% of children in foster care, according to Medicaid claims from five states, were prescribed psychotropic drugs in 2008, compared with 5 to 10% of children who weren’t in foster care. Medicaid spent $59 million on the drugs. The report also found that thousands of foster children were overdosed; some were receiving doses higher than adults are prescribed. Hundreds of children were overloaded with five or more medications at once; according to testimony at a hearing held by Carper, children rarely should receive two. Infants were also given psychotropic drugs, which is against against any sane person’s idea of good practice.

According to a National Survey of Child and Adolescent Well-Being (No. 17 Psychotropic Medication Use by Children in Child Welfare), other studies found that among children enrolled in Medicaid in 2011, “children in foster care were prescribed psychotropic medications at rates from 3 to 11 times higher than nonfoster children.”

 The Psychotropic Summit was the culmination of a slew of webinars, conference calls and papers generated since the GAO report was issued in December 2011. The report prompted an unusual collaboration among three federal agencies — the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) — to move quickly to issue guidelines, provide tools and resources, and demonstrate cutting-edge practices. The summit was attended by representatives of those agencies, plus people from state child welfare, Medicaid, and mental health systems in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and tribal representatives.

“We must ensure that medical standards are met and best practices are followed,” Carper said in a press release. “Unless our Medicaid policies properly reflect best medical practices, the result will damage not only the program’s financial bottom line but, more importantly, the health and welfare of our nation’s foster care children.”

Resources and tools:

Now, you can’t do much about war or natural disasters, life-threatening disease or accidents. But labeling kids with a “disorder” can often be putting the blame for the behavior on the victim. That’s why a few child welfare service agencies are taking a different approach: working with the whole family. They’re doing this because, more often than not, parents of a distressed kid need as much help with their own trauma as their children. Many parents grew up with childhood trauma, and never had help understanding it or know how to change their behaviors so that they don’t pass on their trauma to their children.

San Diego’s Child Welfare Services agency is one of three in the U.S. that’s embarked on a goal of integrating trauma-informed practices into their entire agency.

More on that in another post.

(Thanks to Chris Engel on ACEsConnection for finding useful links for resources and tools.)


  1. […] Many children of divorce exhibit behavior issues. As you have learned from reading other articles here on DivorceMinistry4Kids you know these children live stress-filled chaotic lives. Oftentimes, they are overcome with anger and confusion and guilt. They are confused, scared, depressed and angry children. In many circumstances these underlying feelings manifest themselves in acting out. They act out their feelings through their behavior. Researchers are now realizing that family crisis and trauma can lead to disruptive behaviors in kids. (If you want to learn more learn more about this subject read, “Are these sings of mental illness in kids? Or normal response to childhood trauma?😉 […]


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