Teenagers are unique, as I am sure any of them will tell you. Their problems are different, and “you just don’t understand.” When it comes to trauma, they may be right. While conclusive research has yet to be done, the prevailing hypothesis and evidence says that post-traumatic stress looks different at different ages. Teenagers in general tend to straddle the line between childish and adult behaviors, and the manifestation of their symptoms of trauma is no different. It is important when talking about trauma in teens to look at a few areas, risk factors for PTSD, unique and common reactions, what to watch for, and what to do.
What are the Risk Factors for Teen PTSD?
In every age group there is a quality called resiliency that is a huge determiner of whether or not someone who suffers trauma will develop PTSD. Resiliency is the ability to process and understand and recover from the traumatic incident. Some factors that affect teenager’s resiliency are:
the quality and type of parent-child bond before the traumatic incident
the severity of the trauma
parental reaction to trauma
child’s perceived and actual proximity to the trauma
being female – girls have a higher prevalence rate than boys
compound trauma or previous history of trauma
preexisting mental health issues
low social support
person on person violence – sexual assault, domestic violence, bullying
Each of these risk factors alone could take up an entire article, so if there are questions about any of them, please feel free to ask us.
How do Teens React Differently to Trauma?
Teens tend to have very different reactions to traumatic stress than adults. They may not have flashbacks or trouble remembering. They may put events in the incorrect order. They may think that things that happened leading up to the trauma were “signs.” They may look for these signs as future warnings. They may believe that “if I pay attention, I can avoid it happening again.” They have a tendency to show more impulse control and aggressive behavior in response to trauma. They may select “play” activities that recreate the trauma in some way, i.e. violent video games or scary movies. None of these signs are conclusive evidence of trauma alone, but they do highlight differences between teens and adults or children.
While no two reactions to trauma are identical, there are certain reactions that are more common than others. These reactions can occur in any age but are very common in teens. One of the most common is noticeably lowered self-esteem. Another common reaction is a lack of trust in others. A third common reaction is irrational and new fears, maybe a fear of the dark, or fear of being alone. Lastly, teens that have suffered trauma may become much angrier than they were before. These reactions may just sound like teenage angst, and they can look similar, but these reactions are not just your normal teenage problems, they can be indicators of something more severe.
What Should Parents and Caregivers Look For?
If the most common symptoms of trauma in teens look kind of like normal teen angst, then it is important to know what you can look for to see if they need help. These particular changes are good indicators, if they are out of the normal range for teenage change.
Changes in Sleep Patterns – If all of a sudden your teen develops insomnia, or can’t seem to get out of bed in the morning, there may be something else going on.
Out of Place Sexual Behavior – This does not mean sexual behavior that parents disagree with, this means behaviors that are out of the norm for teens of their age, and out of the norm for that particular teen.
Drug and Alcohol Abuse – This is a hard one because the teen usually hides it, and it is common for teens to experiment, however sudden and immediate changes and increases in drug and alcohol use can be a hallmark of trauma.
Self-Harm – Cutting, burning, self mutilation, none of these are normal behaviors, not even for teens, and they are usually an indicator that something more is going on.
Aggression – Sudden intense aggression, or major changes in aggressive behavior can be a huge indicator of trauma in a teen.
Avoidance – Has your teen started avoiding things they used to enjoy?
Changes in School Performance – Rapid fluctuations in grades and attendance are signs of problems under the surface.
Friendship Problems – Unusual changes in friendships and friend groups are normal for teens experiencing trauma.
Loss of Interest – Sometimes a teen will begin to lose interest in their favorite activities, sports, hobbies, etc.
Any Other Self Destructive Behavior – This is the last catch all, teens with significant trauma often engage in reckless and destructive behaviors.
If you have seen any of these behavioral changes in your teen, it may be time for you as a parent to do something, but often times no one knows what they are supposed to do.
What Do I Do If I Think My Teen has Experienced Trauma?
If you think your teen has experienced something traumatic, remember children and teens are very resilient, many will recover from an incident within a few months. If this doesn’t happen, or the incident was particularly horrific, then as a parent you may need to get them help. Sometimes they will show only a few symptoms for years without treatment, and then all of a sudden there will be an explosion of symptoms for no apparent reason. When looking for help it is important to look for and find someone with whom both you and your teen feel comfortable with, and who has experience working with you child’s age group. You also probably want to look for an EMDR trained therapist. EMDR is one of the most highly recommended treatment options for individuals with trauma.
None of this is easy to deal with, and there are no clear cut answers. If you think your child has experienced something, or you don’t know what to do after an incident, please feel free to call us at here at Coherence Associates Inc. at (760) 942-8663. If you have questions, please feel free to comment below, or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reannon Kerwood, MA, LMFT
Coherence Associates, Inc.