HomeHealthHealing burn scars …understanding and addressing PTSD in child burn-survivors

Healing burn scars …understanding and addressing PTSD in child burn-survivors

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By Kudzayi Gumbanjera

POST-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a complex psychological condition that can affect individuals of all ages and backgrounds. 

While it is commonly associated with combat veterans and survivors of natural disasters, it can also impact children who have experienced traumatic events, such as burn-injuries. 

Child burn-survivors often face unique challenges that can lead to PTSD. 

In 2020, my daughter, who, at the time, was three years old, survived third degree burns. 

This was the most traumatic experience for my family and my daughter. 

Having experienced this first hand, I lived and have learnt to cope with this trauma over the years. 

In this article, we will explore how PTSD affects children who are burn-survivors, delving into its psychological impact and the crucial steps towards helping these young survivors heal and lead fulfilling lives.

The effects range from psychological to social. 

Children who have suffered burn-injuries often experience intense emotional distress. 

They may have vivid memories of the traumatic incident, nightmares and intrusive thoughts. 

These symptoms can be overwhelming for young minds, causing significant emotional turmoil.

The fear of experiencing another burn incident or undergoing painful medical treatments can lead to heightened anxiety in child burn-survivors. 

They may become excessively cautious and avoid situations that remind them of their trauma, leading to social isolation and a reduced quality of life.

As the healing process begins, flashbacks and dissociation are normal. 

Flashbacks, where the child re-experiences the traumatic event as if it were happening again, are common in PTSD. 

Dissociation, on the other hand, involves feeling detached from oneself, one’s body or one’s surroundings. 

Both of these symptoms can disrupt a child’s sense of reality and self-identity.

Emotional distress happens and the child with PTSD often engages in avoidance behaviour to cope with their distress. 

Avoidance behaviour is one of many other coping mechanisms children with PTSD use. 

They may avoid discussing their trauma, refuse to return to the location where the burn occurred or even avoid medical appointments, hindering their physical and emotional recovery. 

Children with PTSD may struggle to regulate their emotions, leading to mood swings and irritability. These emotional fluctuations can make it challenging for them to establish healthy relationships with peers and family members. 

The location where the burn occurred is always a trigger for these children. 

They may not fully comprehend everything, but one notices withdrawal symptoms and avoidance to be at that place. 

Potential causes of PTSD are unavoidable. 

The physical pain associated with burn injuries can be excruciating and the trauma of undergoing multiple surgeries and medical procedures can leave a lasting impact on a child’s mental health. 

On the body image, the scars can now become an ‘identity’. 

Burn-survivors often experience changes in their physical appearance, which can lead to body image issues and feelings of self-consciousness. 

These concerns can be particularly challenging for children who are still developing their self-identity. 

Burn survivors may encounter social stigma and discrimination due to their visible scars, further exacerbating feelings of isolation and low self-esteem. 

The reaction of caregivers and parents can also be a trigger for all sorts of reactions. 

The response of caregivers and family members significantly influences a child’s recovery. 

High levels of parental stress, financial constraints or a lack of emotional support can increase the risk of PTSD in child burn-survivors.

Therapists have various techniques of helping burn-survivors. 

They typically start by identifying PTSD symptoms in child burn-survivors which is crucial for early intervention. 

Paediatricians, psychologists and burn care teams should collaborate to monitor and address any signs of trauma. 

Timely support can prevent the development of chronic PTSD. 

Trauma-informed therapy approaches, such as cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) and eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR), can be effective in helping child burn-survivors process their traumatic experiences and develop coping strategies.

Creating a supportive family environment is essential. 

Parents and caregivers should be educated about PTSD and seek guidance on how to provide emotional support. 

Family therapy can also help improve communication and reduce family stress. 

Connecting child burn-survivors with others who have experienced similar traumas can be immensely beneficial. 

Peer support groups offer a safe space for children to share their feelings and experiences, reducing their sense of isolation. 

Raising awareness about burn-injuries and their psychological impact is vital. 

Schools, communities and healthcare professionals should be educated about the unique challenges faced by child burn-survivors to ensure a more inclusive and empathetic environment. 

Encouraging resilience-building activities such as art therapy, sports and hobbies can help children regain their confidence and self-esteem. 

These activities can also provide a healthy outlet for processing emotions.

Child burn-survivors who develop PTSD face a complex journey towards recovery. 

It is essential to recognise the psychological impact of burn-injuries on children and provide them with the necessary support and resources to heal. 

By implementing early intervention strategies, trauma-informed therapy and creating a supportive environment, we can help these young survivors navigate the challenges of PTSD and move towards a brighter future where their scars no longer define their lives. 

It is our collective responsibility to ensure that child burn-survivors receive the care and understanding they need to heal and thrive.

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