NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Children are susceptible to developing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, when their parents are seriously injured, a new study suggests.
Researchers studied 175 pairs of parents and school-age children seen at a Seattle trauma center. They found that uninjured children whose parents were seriously hurt were twice as likely to experience PTSD symptoms months later as those whose parents were uninjured.
"If the parent is injured, the child is more likely to have more anxiety in five months," psychiatrist Dr. Douglas Zatzick told Reuters Health. "We hope to incorporate psychological support services that allow us to anticipate the difficulties that families face in the wake of injury."
Motor vehicle crashes were the primary cause of injury when both the parent and child were seriously hurt. Other injuries were caused by burns or falls, for instance.
About 20 percent of uninjured children whose parents were injured reported symptoms of PTSD five months later, compared to 10 percent of uninjured children whose parents were also unhurt, according to findings published in Pediatrics. The difference shrunk after a year.
Zatzick and his colleagues at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle also found that injured children tended to recover more slowly physically and emotionally if their parents were also injured than children whose parents were not seriously hurt.
Prior research has shown that when parents become ill with diseases such as HIV and cancer, their children are more at risk for emotional distress, substance abuse and risky sexual behavior, the authors write. Injuries parents sustain in combat can also have psychological effects on their children.
Another study found that children of mothers with PTSD had a higher risk of being traumatized themselves (see Reuters Health story of September 12, 2013 here: http://reut.rs/1iSEILM).
The current study is the first to examine the effect of a parent's injury outside a war zone on an uninjured child. The authors said they were concerned but not surprised to find that a civilian parent's injury might stress a child.
Nancy Kassam-Adams, a psychologist who directs the Center for Pediatric Traumatic Stress at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, said she was surprised that the prevalence of PTSD in uninjured children with injured parents surpassed that of children who were injured themselves.
Kassam-Adams was not involved in the current study but researches PTSD in injured children and their parents.
She told Reuters Health she would like parents and doctors to consider the findings and reach out to see if the children of injured parents need counseling or other help.
"What this tells me is that when parents are injured they need to be cognizant of children's reactions. A physician seeing an adult injured patient might ask how the rest of the family is doing and might suggest to the patient, 'You might want to take that up with your school's teacher or nurse,'" she said.
"These are simple things that any physician can do," she said. "They can open a door, and even that is helpful."