Helping children with PTSD recover

About PTSD: children and teens who have experienced repeated traumatic events can be helped with trauma-focused therapy – according to new research involving the University of East Anglia

New research published today shows that psychotherapeutic treatment is highly effective in helping young people who have experienced repeated or multiple traumatic experiences such as sexual, physical or emotional abuse.

It was previously thought that therapies including trauma-focused cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) may only be of use for young who had experienced one-off traumas like road traffic accidents.

But the new findings show that this type of therapy can also help severely traumatised children and teens, who have suffered extreme and multiple traumas.

Lead author Dr Thole Hoppen, from University of Münster in Germany, said: “Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a serious, usually chronic, illness which creates severe functional impairment in everyday life of those affected.”

Prof Richard Meiser-Stedman, from UEA‘s Norwich Medical School, said: “Around 25 per cent of children and adolescents exposed to traumatic events develop PTSD. Repeated physical, sexual and emotional traumas in childhood in particular carry a high risk of PTSD.

The cases of sexual abuse in the Catholic church and the Russian war against Ukraine are two current examples that illustrate the scope of mass trauma events.”

PTSD, trauma-focused psychotherapy aims to change patients’ patterns of thought and behaviour that have arisen as a result of their trauma

The aim is to enable patients to confront the trauma they have experienced, under the supervision of a therapist, and thereby process the memories and their consequences.

“The widespread argument is that this therapy demands too much of patients, and that it is not very promising, inappropriate, or even dangerous,” said Hoppen.

“Our analysis has enabled us to prove the opposite.”

The researchers evaluated the results of all randomised controlled psychotherapy trials published so far relating to PTSD in children and adolescents

This meta-analysis distinguished between individual and multiple trauma exposures in children and adolescents, for the first time.

Prof Meiser-Stedman said: “There has been a body of evidence for some time now suggesting that children and teenagers with PTSD respond well to psychological therapies such as trauma-focused cognitive-behavioural therapy.

“However, a concern has been that this evidence mainly addresses single incident traumas like road traffic accidents and assaults, and may not be relevant for youth with PTSD following exposure to repeated or multiple traumatic experiences, such as abuse and maltreatment.

What our review of the evidence suggests is that those children and teenagers whose PTSD stems from such extreme traumas respond similarly well to the available treatments.

This gives us confidence that we have the tools to help some of the more severely traumatised youth.”

The results of the study are important not only for outpatient psychotherapy but also for inpatient treatment in psychiatric wards, as well as for the training of psychotherapists.

The results provide hope and guidance for people affected, for their families and for those treating them.

‘The efficacy of psychological interventions for PTSD in children and adolescents exposed to single vs. multiple traumas

Meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials’ is published in the British Journal of Psychiatry.

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