Posttraumatic stress disorder in infants and young children exposed to war-related trauma

Ruth Feldman, Adva Vengrober

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

131 Scopus citations

Abstract

Objective: Although millions of the world's children are growing up amidst armed conflict, little research has described the specific symptom manifestations and relational behavior in young children exposed to wartime trauma or assessed factors that chart pathways of risk and resilience. Method: Participants included 232 Israeli children 1.5 to 5 years of age, 148 living near the Gaza Strip and exposed to daily war-related trauma and 84 controls. Children's symptoms were diagnosed, maternal and child attachment-related behaviors observed during the evocation of traumatic memories, and maternal psychological symptoms and social support were self-reported. Results: PTSD was diagnosed in 37.8% of war-exposed children (n = 56). Children with PTSD exhibited multiple posttraumatic symptoms and substantial developmental regression. Symptoms observed in more than 60% of diagnosed children included nonverbal representation of trauma in play; frequent crying, night waking, and mood shifts; and social withdrawal and object focus. Mothers of children with PTSD reported the highest depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic symptoms and the lowest social support, and displayed the least sensitivity during trauma evocation. Attachment behavior of children in the Exposed-No-PTSD group was characterized by use of secure-base behavior, whereas children with PTSD showed increased behavioral avoidance. Mother's, but not child's, degree of trauma exposure and maternal PTSD correlated with child avoidance. Conclusions: Large proportions of young children exposed to repeated wartime trauma exhibit a severe posttraumatic profile that places their future adaptation at significant risk. Although more resilient children actively seek maternal support, avoidance signals high risk. Maternal well-being, sensitive behavior, and support networks serve as resilience factors and should be the focus of interventions for families of war-exposed infants and children.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)645-658
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
Volume50
Issue number7
DOIs
StatePublished - Jul 2011

Keywords

  • PTSD
  • attachment theory
  • preschoolers
  • toddlers
  • war-related trauma

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