Today is Bell Let's Talk Day. Bell Let’s Talk is a multi-year charitable program dedicated to mental health. Today, Kathy Soden, a parent through adoption, gives her thoughts on the fallout of the trauma that children and youth who experience early life neglect, abuse and attachment disruptions have to live with.
Written by Kathy Soden, CPA, CA, Manager, Permanency & Adoption Competency Training (PACT)
With great interest, I’ve recently read articles in the media about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in veterans, and then on January 16th, an excellent article in the Globe & Mail about PTSD in first responders.  I am very encouraged that these issues are beginning to be identified and studied. I feel compelled to write about another PTSD – a quiet, complex, pervasive kind of PTSD that affects a population of kids from their earliest days of life. I’m talking about some of our kids in, and from, foster care and other institutional care settings.
Many of these children have suffered abuse, neglect, deprivation, multiple losses, many layers of grief, and disrupted attachments; in other words, “trauma”- in their birth families and during their time in foster care. According to a study by the Casey Family Programs and Harvard Medical School in the United States, thirty percent of former foster youth are diagnosed with PTSD, which is about twice the rate of U.S. combat veterans. 
These kids are often labeled with other names like – “troubled”, ADHD, ODD, bi-polar, attachment disordered, anxious, depressed, emotionally dysregulated, mood disordered, conduct disordered, having executive functioning and other learning disabilities. As they get older they are sometimes labeled as suicidal, substance abusers, suspected of having personality disorders, psychosis at times, even sociopaths who are “high-risk of offending” youth and adults. These labels may or may not be individually accurate, but they certainly don’t tell the whole story.
What is really going on? From my perspective as an adoptive mom, these children and youth have a form of PTSD. Some experts, like Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, would call it developmental trauma disorder.  Others like Dr. Bruce Perry might call it complex traumatic stress disorder.  Still others might call it complex PTSD. But call it these things we should. Why? It is important to give this a name that can help us understand the depth and complexity of the issues involved so our children can be properly helped. Our children all too often fall through the cracks because of a lack of willingness to acknowledge the impact of their experiences on every aspect of their development and functioning.
My big “ask” is that those professionals who are looking at PTSD and its causes, symptoms and treatments, include in their work our population of kids who live with these issues just under the surface of their skin all of the time.
When a child is immersed in their early life (including in utero) in a chaotic
environment of sustained, chronic neglect/abuse and attachment disruptions how does their brain form and develop in
its earliest stages? It forms in ways that they need it to, in order to survive. And because this chaos and trauma happens so early in their lives and often at the hands of their primary caregivers it impacts their fundamental brain development in ways
that will affect them throughout their lives. This can give them tremendous resilience and other incredible skills, but their stress response system, their ability to attach and form healthy relationships and their ability to have reliable cause and effect thinking available to them is pervasively impacted and perhaps in some cases, even irrevocably impaired. This means that even once the trauma, chaos and disruptions stop, the effects, and the child's embedded survival system, continue to operate.
Like the spouses of veterans and first responders, it is the parents of our kids, - often adoptive parents - who see this; it is the parents who live with the fall-out of this - alongside their child, then youth, then young adult - every day. Sometimes because of these brain effects our kids may do things that are unacceptable in society’s eyes, but with the appropriate lens, we can see that what they do and how they act is perhaps somewhat understandable.
I am very encouraged at the attention and the resources that are being given to the PTSD of veterans and first responders – it is clearly long overdue. I have great respect for them and their service to all of us. I bet they would have a unique understanding of our kids and why they do what they do. I wonder if there would be value in somehow treating them together – they could support each other in ways most of us probably couldn’t understand.
My big “ask” is that those professionals who are looking at PTSD and its causes, symptoms and treatments, include in their work our population of kids who live with these issues just under the surface of their skin all of the time. And while society didn’t ask our kids to do specific jobs like we’ve done with first responders and veterans, society owes them a duty of care too.
Society let them down by not having the supports in place to allow their birth families to be healthy enough to keep them, nor given their adoptive families the information, resources and tools they need to help heal them. Often times, the birth family’s mental health was not properly recognized or treated. As a result of this, they often self-medicated and resorted to using primal coping skills to manage. Why? Sadly, in many cases these parents have very similar histories to that of their kids. You can see this pattern of intergenerational trauma very clearly in our indigenous families and children who are in crisis across our country.
If you take this thinking a step further, you could ask yourself if we as a society want to reduce youth and adult homelessness, crime and substance abuse? I would argue that the roots of these issues are often directly related to some form of PTSD or trauma. Look closely at the populations of those residing in residential treatment centres, shelters and in jails. I would bet that a history of early life trauma and attachment disruption is very much in play for many of the residents.
Let’s get our act together and treat all forms of PTSD, including “complex PTSD” or “developmental trauma disorder”.
Let’s name it, even if the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual) won’t.
Veterans, first responders and our kids in and from care have a lot in common. They are very brave people and they are suffering too much. I suspect if we walked a day in their shoes, we couldn’t tolerate it. They deserve our respect and our compassion. Their hearts are big, so very, very big but their brain wiring and we as a society are letting them down.
Let’s study it.
Let’s learn to heal it.
I recently read in the Globe & Mail that PTSD can be treated. 
Prove it. Please. For our kids.
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