Laura Russell, Ph.D., Archive  

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Q. Can Post Traumatic Stress Disorder explain serious aggressive and oppositional behaviors in a child? 

What can teachers parents and guardians do to help and still protect the other children?

A. This is a dilemma I see often in my practice with children. I do, personally, have much sympathy for the adults who care for acting out children. Your job requires that you control a group of children.

Unfortunately, the adult need for control is often all that is needed to trigger a traumatized child. Behavioral tools and techniques are not therapeutic or helpful for traumatized children; because they rarely work. Sadly, they re-traumatize the child.

Here is how that happens. Try to think about the three sets of symptoms of PTSD: Reliving, avoidance, and physical hyper-arousal when triggered. Children, like adults tend to avoid the reliving and physical triggering. Yet, anything that in any way resembles their trauma will cause the psychological and physical reliving symptoms.
Needless to say, this is very painful for the child to experience.

I want to add to your understanding of this phenomenon by briefly mentioning what child abusers do to children. They use their increased power as bigger people with higher status as adults to hurt little people. They yell, hit, beat, punch, burn, and lock in closets. They terrorize children who have no defense against them.

If we think about what has happened to that child, we can understand their oppositional behavior and rage.

It is important in these situations, if at all possible, to avoid a power and control struggle. Unless the child is actively dangerous, I'd try to avoid a contest of wills. At the same time, you do have to balance your safety and the safety of the other children.

One class, Behavior is Language I and II, offered by Seattle Pacific University offers some additional techniques and skills that help with this situation. Here is the link for the class: 

In my office (with only one child at a time), I have been hit, bit, and spit upon. I do not accept this, and actually do not tolerate it. I tell them it is unacceptable; I leave the room, stop the therapy, and refuse to participate in any interaction with the child until the next week.

Think in terms of containment rather than control.



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