Treating PTSD In Heart Kids And Their Families

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The mental and emotional impact of a child’s heart condition can last long after treatment has gotten the physical symptoms under control.

For some heart kids and their families, these effects can be debilitating. I’ve heard many heart parents ask if what they’re experiencing is possibly post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

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To answer that question, I turned to Sean Akers, PsyD, a clinical psychologist here at Children’s.

Dr. Akers says he has seen signs of PTSD in heart kids and their parents.

He adds that he does not diagnose parents, but explains, “If parents need assistance, they can be referred to a provider.”

Parents and children can—and should—seek diagnosis and treatment if they show signs of PTSD. Here’s what you should know about treating PTSD in heart kids and their families.

PTSD In Children Vs. Adults

“PTSD—as well as most psychiatric issues—tend to look at least a little different in children compared to adults,” Dr. Akers says. “Some of this is due to differences in experience,” he adds, explaining that living through the trauma as a child may not be the same as witnessing it as a parent.

But, he says, people “can develop PTSD symptoms from directly experiencing a traumatic event, witnessing the event as it occurs in others, or even learning of a traumatic event experienced by a close family member.”

“Developmental differences in children and adults” can also play a role in PTSD symptoms, he says.


Why People Avoid Getting Treatment For PTSD

Unfortunately, there are a number of reasons why people may not seek treatment for their PTSD.

“The stigma of seeing a psychologist is very real,” Dr. Akers says. Some people “feel that they must be ‘crazy’ to see a psychologist, so they resist.”

He also adds that, “With PTSD, the thoughts and feelings are often overwhelming, so the idea of talking about them with a psychologist can be difficult.”

“Initially, patients often want to be superficial and very brief when discussing traumatic events,” even though opening up is an important part of treatment, he says.

Treating PTSD In Heart Kids And Their Families

“Typically, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is the treatment of choice for people with PTSD,” Dr. Akers says.

“The goal of therapy is to work toward integrating the memory of the traumatic event” within the patient’s existing mental framework, he explains.

Dr. Akers says that while both children and adults can be treated with this type of therapy, treatment may look different based on the patient’s age. For instance, play therapy may work better for younger children, while talk therapy may be a better option for older kids and adults.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, treating PTSD with cognitive behavioral therapy involves many different techniques, including:

  • Exposure therapy: Helping the patient to face—and ultimately control—his fear in a safe, guided environment
  • Cognitive restructuring: Assisting the patient in making sense of the trauma by putting it into perspective
  • Stress inoculation training: Providing the patient with ways to reduce anxiety

Ultimately, Dr. Akers says, “The objective of therapy for PTSD is for the person to have the ability to access the traumatic memory without feeling overwhelmed.”

Barb Roessner

Hi, I'm Barb, and I'm a Physician Assistant and coordinator of the Heart Failure and Transplant Program at Children's Hospital & Medical Center in Omaha. I work with patients and families at every step of the journey, from diagnosing their child's heart condition to my favorite part—calling them to say "We have a heart."

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