A child who won't concentrate in class, complains that he's bored and refuses to do his work needs consequences, right?
But what if he's acting out because he's witnessed violence at home or has been abused? Punishing him won't solve the underlying problem and will only make it worse, says child psychologist Douglas Goldsmith.
The director of The Children's Center, which has mental health facilities for young children in Salt Lake City and Kearns, says what looks like attention deficit disorder or defiance may really be a child's reaction to experiencing trauma.
That's why the center is working to educate the agencies that come into contact with children from foster care to schools to juvenile courts to screen children for trauma and get them into evidence-based therapy.
"What we know is that when children are traumatized, people don't…recognize this is something that needs mental health care," Goldsmith said. "If these kids go without treatment, according to national data, they are at extreme risk of very serious not only emotional problems as adults but very serious health problems."
The center recently held a seminar for 400 people about "trauma-informed care" with speakers from Primary Children's Medical Center, the Division of Child and Family Services and Lt. Gov. Greg Bell. It's part of The Children's Center's expanding role in providing care to children who have experienced trauma.
It recently was awarded a $1.6 million, four-year grant from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The money continues the center's connection with the federally created National Child Traumatic Stress Network, which is devoted to improving treatments for children exposed to traumas ranging from physical and sexual abuse, domestic and community violence, illness and injuries and natural disasters or terrorism.
The grant will allow the center, along with Primary Children's Center for Safe and Healthy Families, which investigates and treats abuse cases statewide and has been a member of the network, to treat 400 more children. The focus will be on military and refugee families and children in foster care.
With its first federal grant, The Children's Center has treated 300 traumatized children since 2009. The most common trauma experienced was domestic violence, Goldsmith said, adding that on average, the children had experienced nearly three types of traumas by age 4.
"It's rather horrifying," he said. "We're seeing children who've been sexually abused and physically abused and children who have witnessed the death of a caregiver."
Without treatment, adults who have been traumatized as children are more likely to be obese, abuse alcohol, smoke, be depressed and attempt suicide, according to federal studies.
"Because of unresolved childhood trauma, these people are giving up and they're saying, 'I'm going to make poor health choices because I don't really care,'" Goldsmith said.
Therapy, including getting the children to talk about their experiences and helping them correct misperceptions that they caused the trauma, can work, the psychologist said.
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For previous reporting by The Salt Lake Tribune on post-traumatic stress among Utah children: 'Bad things can happen to kids' more Utah youths struggle with PTSD