Get Help for Kids with Trauma or They Might Abuse Substances

About one in four American children experience trauma before they are 16 years old, and many develop all the debilitating symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome, according to Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, a psychiatrist who helped define and formalize the syndrome as a medical disorder. Dr. van der Kolk believes that if society does not help these children, the future is at risk.

"We are destroying ourselves as a nation by not paying attention to childhood abuse and neglect," he said in a speech at the University of Montana. Dr. van der Kolk, a graduate of Harvard Medical School, is founder and director of the National Childhood Traumatic Stress Network.

Traumatized children act out of control because they are out of control, he said. Trauma actually can stunt the parts of the brain that are associated with higher level thinking, executive control, language processing, and self control.

"Trauma comes to live inside you," he said. "The enemy is living within and traumatized people are terrified of feeling – they would rather drink or do drugs. What they need is introspection and to combine that with rhythmic practices such as meditation and quiet activities. They need to be taught how to be safe in their own bodies." Their therapy should teach them how to feel safe, to understand what frightens them, and to release stress in a healthy way.

The University of Montana staff has been involved in the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study of over 17,000 adults, begun in the 1990s. So far the study indicates that adverse childhood experiences, such as having a mentally ill or incarcerated parent, are extremely common and yet tend to be kept hidden. Trauma at an early age can predict organic disease, social malfunction and mental illness in adulthood.