Parents’ Descriptions of Young Children’s Dissociative Reactions after Trauma

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Dissociation, flashbacks, young children, intrusion, post-traumatic stress disorder

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There is limited research on the phenomenology of how young children who have been exposed to trauma express the intrusive symptom of dissociative reactions. The current qualitative study utilized interviews from a semi-structured diagnostic clinical interview with 74 caregivers of young children (ages 3 to 7) who were exposed to trauma to identify parents’ descriptions of their children’s dissociative reactions during a clinical interview. Based on results from the interview, 45.9% of the children had dissociative reactions (8.5% had flashbacks and 41.9% had dissociative episodes). Interviews were transcribed to identify themes of dissociative reactions in young children. Common themes to flashbacks and dissociative episodes included being triggered, being psychologically in their own world (e.g., spaced out and shut down), and displaying visible signs (e.g., crying and screaming). For flashbacks, caregivers reported that it seemed as if the child was re-experiencing the trauma (e.g., yelling specific words and having body responses). For dissociative episodes, caregivers noted that the child not only seemed psychologically somewhere else (e.g., distant and not there) but also would be physically positioned somewhere else (e.g., sitting and not responding). Caregivers also expressed their own reactions to the child’s dissociative episode due to not understanding what was occurring, and trying to interrupt the occurrences (e.g., calling out to the child). Themes, descriptions, and phrases to describe dissociative reactions in young children after trauma can be used to help parents and professionals more accurately identify occurrences of dissociative reactions.

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Journal of Trauma & Dissociation, v. 19, issue 5, p. 500-513