How to Ask a Patient about Childhood Trauma History: Dr. Bessel van der Kolk

In this lecture Bessel van der Kolk speaks about his work with patients with childhood trauma. Here is a snippet of this video on how to get from a patient information about his/her trauma history. The topic of childhood trauma is not easy to bring up. Oftentimes the patient doesn’t recall the traumatic event(s). Sometimes these events are not acknowledged as trauma by the patient. Even if someone has encountered trauma and has memory  the event, there may still exist emotional difficulty in relating the event to a professional.

Van der Kolk provides us here with a way of interviewing the client @ 10:20 :

  1. Ask about demographics: where do you live? who lives with you? who does the cooking? who does the dishes? who do you talk to when you come home at night? When you need help/ when you are sick, who can you turn to? when you feel bereft and upset, who do you talk to? These questions give a picture of a person’s interconnectedness.
  2. Ask about the person’s current health (e.g. sleeping patterns).
  3. Family of origin demographics: how about when you were little? who loved you? who was affectionate to you? who saw you as a special little kid? was there anyone in your family who you felt safe with growing up? (*Hear van der Kolk’s comment on this question @ 12:30) who made the rules and enforced rules at home? how did your parents solve their disagreement?
  4. Childhood caretaker and separation.
  5. Other questions @ 31:30 : can we assume that life was good growing up? was anybody in your life a drug addict or alcoholic?

“You really cannot understand anyone with Borderline Personality Disorder unless you understand the terror they grew up in.” Bessel van der Kolk

Childhood trauma and BPD are correlated in findings. 87% of studied subjects with BPD had histories of severe childhood abuse and/or neglect — prior to age 7.  Other personality disorders do not have significant correlations with childhood trauma.

Slide @ 17:05 shows correlation between childhood physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect and the symptoms of suicide ideas, suicidal attempts, cutting, bingeing and anorexia.

Neglect and ability to feel safe are found to be factors that determine the likelihood in which the patient can feel safe and be helped during therapy.

Full video is here:

Why do we need to find out about traumatic childhood experiences in therapy? Besel van der Kolk explains this @ 44:40, the importance of revisiting the traumatizing events.

@ 45:20 he explains the neuro-biological consequence of trauma.

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