At Preschool for Traumatized Kids, Emotional Care Comes First

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Reggie, now 5, was exposed to methamphetamines in utero and, after he was born, his biological mother wasn’t able to care for him. When he was 4-weeks-old, I was his doctor in the foster-care clinic at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center. He was adopted by one of my pediatric colleagues, Amy Huang, and her husband, Daniel. Because Reggie is a minor, his and his parents’ names have been changed.

“He was the best baby, no withdrawals, no terrible twos,” Amy Huang said. “We thought he had escaped the meth-effects.”

But, unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.

In January, when Reggie returned to preschool after winter vacation, he started having extreme behaviors. He became defiant and aggressive. He was biting, hitting strangers and at times getting on all fours and acting like an animal. His parents were frustrated and worried that the problems were related to his drug exposure.

The effects of methamphetamines on infants in the womb run a wide spectrum, from mild learning problems to significant impairment of brain function. These infants may be born premature, have low birth weight or suffer withdrawals causing jitteriness, irritability, and poor feeding. In addition, meth-addicted mothers often have poor health and may use other substances such as marijuana, tobacco, alcohol, and cocaine. All of these can have negative effects on the infant’s development, as well as the mother’s ability to parent.

Researchers have shown that children who were meth-exposed in utero have difficulties with their brain’s executive function, which is the central command for organizing thoughts, planning and learning. These children also have an increased risk of disruptive behaviors and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), as well as depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses, when compared to non-exposed peers. Some of these problems don’t become obvious until the cognitive and behavioral demands of a classroom.

By spring, Reggie’s behavior was spiraling out of control and his preschool teachers couldn’t cope with him. The Huangs took him out of that school but didn’t know where to turn.

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