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Trauma Counseling for Parents Helps Kids

New research on war refugee mothers proves there are emotional, physical benefits

SATURDAY, Oct. 27, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- It's no secret that emotional trauma or stress on a parent can also take its toll on children.

But new research shows that if a mother gets counseling, her children will benefit from it both physically and emotionally.

The study, conducted in Bosnia, examined the impact of psychological counseling on 87 female war refugees and their 5- and 6-year-old children who had been traumatized by the sights and experiences of war.

The mothers attended weekly group counseling sessions for five months, and showed a notably improved mental state. What surprised researchers was the impact on their children. Not only did the kids show psychological improvements, but they gained an average of 4.4 pounds -- a pound more than was observed in a control group of children whose mothers did not receive the counseling.

The researchers say the amount is significant because the children in the war-torn area typically weighed about two to four pounds less than the average Bosnian kindergarten-age child.

Lead author Ragnhild Dybdahl, of the department of psychology at the University of Tromso in Norway, speculates that the mothers were more capable of helping their children once they'd been able to help themselves.

"One probable explanation for the positive effects... on the children is through their mothers' symptom reduction, so that the mothers become more able to help their children," Dybdahl says in a statement released with the study, which was published in a recent issue of Child Development.

Dybdahl explains that the counseling sessions went beyond typical psychotherapy and also offered assistance in parent/child relations.

"The group discussions were designed to support the mother and increase her well-being, her self-confidence and her ability to care for her children in this difficult situation and to be her child's best healer," he says.

"Each meeting was semi-structured and dedicated to education and discussions about specific topics, such as child development, mother-child interaction, trauma and coping strategies," he adds.

Following the therapy, the children were reportedly observed to be "happier, less restless, less distracted, and less clingy [with fewer] drastic mood changes," according to the study.

Child psychiatrist Dr. Michael Brody, a spokesman for the Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, says that because stress is known to have physical manifestations, as well as emotional ones, it makes sense that children are physically affected by their parents' stress.

"There are many studies showing that when something traumatic happens or a loss happens, it definitely affects the immune system, so the findings aren't surprising," he says.

"In fact, traumatic situations can have implications in terms of cognitive development, as well," he adds.

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry reports that traumatized children may show a variety of symptoms of distress, which can initially include agitation and confused behavior and then intense fear, helplessness, anger, sadness, horror or denial.

Experts say early intervention by parents, caregivers or schools to establish an environment of safety and security is essential in helping children overcome trauma.

What To Do

Read more about how to help children through traumatic times at this American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry site.

And the University of Minnesota's Family Stress Series offers important tips on coping through trauma and helping your children cope.

SOURCES: Interview with Michael Brody, M.D., child psychiatrist, spokesperson, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and professor of American Studies, University of Maryland, College Park; study from the August issue of Child Development
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