Changing Colors: The Blog of Spectrum Pediatrics

March 27, 2017

Mealtime Stress: Traumatic Stress

By: Heidi Moreland, MS, CCC-SLP, BRS-S, CLC

Most children and families with a child who has had a life-threatening illness or prolonged medical intervention have experienced a significant amount of stress. Everyone copes with these experiences in different ways. Those coping strategies make changes in the brain that will affect the way you react in future stressful situations. Some families are able to move beyond the initial crisis. They may continue to worry, but are able to develop new thought patterns and behaviors without getting stuck in the same cycle of worry.

However, other parents and families experience symptoms of Traumatic Stress which continue long past the time of the initial crisis. Traumatic Stress is a set of psychological and physiological responses of children and their families to pain, injury, serious illness, medical procedures, and invasive or frightening treatment experiences. These responses are often more related to the person’s own perception of how traumatic the event was, rather than how medically traumatic the event would appear to be to a medical professional or to others involved.

Having a reaction to stress is normal, but it is not helpful if the symptoms persist once the crisis is over. In fact, those symptoms can impact the ability to develop new healthy patterns of coping that are more appropriate for a non-crisis situation. Not everyone experiences on-going symptoms, but those who do tend to fall into a few different categories.

  • Re-Experiencing: Thoughts and feelings pop in your head, you get upset over reminders, or feels like it is all happening again.
  • Avoidance:  You try not to think of those things, or avoid any reminders of them. Sometimes busyness and list-making are functional ways to help you distance yourself from those thoughts and feelings.
  • Increased Arousal:  You always fear that something bad is going to happen, or you remain on constant alert in order to prevent it. You are jumpy and easily started. This can lead to difficulty sleeping and concentrating.
  • Dissociation:  You distance yourself physically or emotionally, or even have difficulty remembering all of it.

Information from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network reports that about 20% of families whose child suffered a traumatic event or illness showed symptoms of Traumatic Stress that were significant enough to impact treatment for the child. It is more often mothers who are affected, and the consequences can be seen months or years after the initial crisis is over. We have also found that about 20% of our families would benefit from treatment specific to dealing with trauma. There isn’t a lot of information to predict who will experience Traumatic Stress that lingers, or why some people are able to move past it, while others’ get “stuck,” but we do know that seeking treatment is extremely helpful.

Many parents, especially mothers, would rather focus on their child’s treatment and don’t want to spend time or resources on themselves. In this case, though, treating your own symptoms will actually make it easier for you to help your child and the outcome is actually better. If you are experiencing any of the symptoms above, or realize that you are having trouble getting past your child’s early medical history, it is possible that you are impacting your child’s recovery process, as well as the relationships around you. Treatment is usually not long-term, and can be extremely helpful to both you and your child.

For more information click here or talk to your child’s pediatrician or your own primary care provider. You can also look for counselors, psychologists, or social workers with experience in dealing with Traumatic Stress, particularly medical stress if possible. Consider providers who utilize telemedicine if there are no providers near you, or if child care is a problem.

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