When we hear the term “posttraumatic stress,” we often think of war or other violent experiences, but did you know that children can develop traumatic stress reactions from illness, injury, and resulting medical treatment?  In the general population, posttraumatic stress has been noted in up to 20% of children and adolescents with asthma, 33% of those with HIV, 48% of those who have been violently injured, and 53% of those with burns.  Overall, up to 80% of ill and injured children and their families experience some traumatic stress reactions (also known as medical traumatic stress) following life-threatening illness, injury or painful medical procedures.

These figures may be even higher among children in foster care, for the following reasons:

  • Children in foster care have more medical needs.  About 25% of children in foster care have an ongoing medical condition, and about 10% have two or more ongoing conditions.
  • Medical needs often coincide with developmental and behavioral issues, or “special needs,” which can make it difficult for children in foster care to cope with health challenges.
  • These children have previous traumatic experiences that may interfere with their ability to manage stress.  For example, abuse may cause injury and drive the need for medical care, while also reducing a child’s ability to relax, feel safe, and trust healthcare providers during medical visits.  In this way, past trauma may make children more vulnerable to medical trauma.
  • Separation from parents or other trusted caregivers deprives children in foster care of needed warmth, familiarity, and support during medical procedures.

In your experience, what additional factors may place children in foster care at greater risk for heightened distress related to medical care?