Trauma Systems Therapy
Trauma Systems Therapy (TST) is a mental health treatment model for children and adolescents who have been exposed to trauma, defined as experiencing, witnessing, or confronting "an event or events that involved actual or threatened death or serious injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of self or others". TST focuses on the child's emotional and behavioral needs as well as the environments where the child lives (home, school, community). The treatment model includes four components (skill-based psychotherapy, home and community based care, advocacy, and psychopharmacology) that are fully described in a published manual. A clinical trial showed that TST is effective in improving the mental health and well-being of children who have been traumatized. TST has also been successfully replicated.
Trauma Systems Therapy treatment is not just for the victims. It also educates the victims significant others in order for them to support the victims in their recovery and help them control their emotions during future stressful events.
When referring to TST, therapists are looking at four categories: the reason a child may need TST, the signs and symptoms expressed by the child, the management and treatment methods and the results of children who have gone through TST. A look at what causes emotional trauma, the families involved, and how therapy can heal the child as well as the adult are also important factors.
Reasons for Treatment
Traumatic events that affect children are seen in households where sexual, mental, or physical abuse is present. The inability to regulate self-emotions either directly or indirectly is a clinical sign that a traumatic event has affected the child. According to child psychiatrist Dr. Glenn Saxe, “TST is a comprehensive model for treating traumatic stress in children and adolescents that adds to individually based approaches by specifically addressing the child’s social environment and/or systems of care”. This may include children or adolescents having social problems in school or in their home secondary to rape, physical abuse, neglect, death of a caregiver and/or any significant life altering emotion trauma. Sexual, physical, or mental traumatic events can affect present, past memory, and the anticipated future. Saxe’s theory in “The March of the Moments: Traumatic Stress in the Past, Present, and Future,” begins with “survival-in-the-moment” which causes severe emotions, unexplained personality changes, erratic behavior due to a sudden trigger that reminds the child of the event. Second, “Past memory” refers to “laying down of the present, conscious moments in the brain so that they can be accessible if we need them”. This causes significant long-term trauma because if a child is not able to understand what has happened to him or her in the past, then he or she will go through life with a band-aid on this wound instead of healing mentally and physically. Finally, “marching into the future” refers to one of the most detrimental causes of traumatic stress, its effect on the child’s ability to think into the future. Saxe states, “If consciousness is about the present, and memory is about the past, then planning and anticipation are about the future”.:40 One’s ability to see into the future is part of the human cognition, when a child starts to “calculate survival-related risk”;:40 this causes significant stress by continuously reliving the trauma. When a child or adolescent plans their future around what might happen, this never allows the cause of the problem to be resolved, insuring they will never mentally or emotional heal. In addition to the black and white causes of Traumatic Stress, there are also secondary causes that are directly related to these events. So TST not only addresses the event at hand but also the associated problems that come along with it.
Diagnosis/ Signs and Symptoms
The treatment for TST is based on professional finding. PTSD is an umbrella diagnosis that includes many children and adolescents who show the basic problem of the inability to regulate their emotions.:62 When evaluating a child for TST, therapists look for awareness, affects, and actions when faced with a stressful event or unfamiliar situation.:62 Children who have been exposed to traumatic events show secondary symptoms such as the following: self modulation, self-destructive behavior, disassociation, feeling shameful, sadness, anger, hostility, social withdrawal, poor relationship skills, or changes in personality.:63 In many children, these symptoms can show up long after the event has occurred, during puberty or even the transition into adulthood.
There are three main groups used to categorize a child’s trauma, starting with Awareness (elements of attention, sense of self, orientation);:65 Affect (mood disorders, personality disorders); and Action (conduct disorders, personality, mood disorders, eating disorders, or substance abuse).:65 The disorders listed are usually first seen by family members, teachers, counselors, or other adults in the child’s life. Children who show signs of depression may also be affected by some sort of PTSD and would benefit from TST. Once children are clinically depressed, they tend to show changes in their thinking about themselves, their view of the world and how they see the future.:61 We see the signs and symptom associated with the event spill over into the home life, social life, academics and extracurricular activities. Unfortunately, children haven’t learned coping skills to deal with traumatic events. Instead, they act out or start the downward spiral to self-destruction. Understanding what to look for and recognizing this behavior in a child or adolescent is key to early detection and success.
Management of such intense emotional stress has to include the child affected, as well as his or her social surroundings. TST treats the home and proved community based care, provides a service advocacy, helps with emotional regulation skills training and uses psychopharmacology to treat patients. Knowledge of the child’s trauma, what stage he or she is at in the recovery phase, and willingness to seek treatment is all part of the healing process for the child and his or her family.
Therapy starts with the home environment. The caregiver has to understand the core problem by addressing if his or her child is sad a lot, destructive, or maybe the school keeps calling CPS (child protective services).:158 Understanding why the child is acting in such a manner is crucial in the healing process. Treatment for family, teachers and social workers is done so all the adults are on the same page with the problem at hand; they understand the course for treatment and can all be tools for the child to use during TST. Next, everyone in the child’s life must become a service advocacy, which means holding “Family Collaborative Meetings”.:156 This offers education and information to the adults so they know what to expect from TST. Dedication from the adults to meet at the scheduled times, have adequate transportation to therapy, ability to overcome language barriers, and put their children’s needs before their own are all essential to success. Emotional regulation skills training is very important to therapy. The process starts with assessment, and then going through the course of treatment. Coping skills are stable and healthy ways to overcome stress and manage a child’s emotions and emotional identification, giving the child tools so he or she can better deal with the strategies, and communication about feelings, emotions, fears and concerns.:225 Finally, psychopharmacology is medication used to help a person’s emotional state. To reach the best therapeutic effect for a child, all of these concepts have to be integrated. The medication approach starts with SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors); these help with anxiety, depression and impulsivity.:212 The second-line medications are Benzodiazepines, Tricyclic antidepressants and Antipsychotic medication. These are very strong and are used as a last-ditch effort to prevent a child from having severe emotional problems. Occasionally, sleeping medication is prescribed but all are under careful supervision for harmful side effects. TST is an ongoing process that attempts to heal the child, not band-aid the problem; thus, medication is used sparingly and patients are weaned to lower therapeutic doses over time.:214
TST patients showed a much longer committed enrollment time versus the patient in basic therapy by almost 90%. The key to success is preventing dropout; this is a long process and significant evidence-based treatment needs at least eight sessions. Children with emotional trauma tend to come from substance abuse families and lower income. This makes it hard for parents to be committed to TST, particularly if they struggle with addiction or abuse themselves. Children have shown significant progress just by the one-on-one attention during TST; a child’s social environment is crucial to his or her success in treatment. Results vary in different social levels of the country, different families and what each child has experienced and its severity.
- Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (Fourth ed.). American Psychiatric Association. 2000.
- Saxe, GN; Ellis, BH; Kaplow, JB (2007). Collaborative Treatment of Traumatized Children and Teens: The Trauma Systems Therapy Approach. Guilford Press. ISBN 9781593853150.
- Saxe, GN; Ellis, BH; Fogler, J; Hansen, S; Sorkin, B (May 2005). "Comprehensive Care for Traumatized Children". Psychiatric Annals. 35: 443–448.
- Hansen, S.; Saxe, G. "Trauma systems therapy: A replication of the model, integrating cognitive behavioral play therapy into child and family treatment". In Drewes, Athena A. Blending play therapy with cognitive behavioral therapy: Evidence-based and other effective treatments and techniques. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons. pp. 139–164. ISBN 9780470495520.
- TST Development Team. "TST Basics". Trauma Systems Therapy: Transforming the lives of traumatized children. Retrieved 2 October 2011.
- Saxe, Glenn N. "TST Basics". Trauma Systems Blog. Retrieved 24 April 2012.
- Saxe, Glenn N.; Heidi Ellis, B.; Fogler, Jason; Navalta, Carryl P. (2012). "Innovations in Practice: Preliminary evidence for effective family engagement in treatment for child traumatic stress-trauma systems therapy approach to preventing dropout". Child and Adolescent Mental Health. 1. 17: 59. doi:10.1111/j.1475-3588.2011.00626.x.