Trauma, in psychological terms, is a normal emotional response to intensely frightening or disruptive events. It can range from very short term emotional discomfort to clinical conditions such as acute stress disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Acute stress disorder, though uncomfortable and persistent, can resolve on its own in a matter of weeks or months. PTSD in teens is marked by chronic, persistent, and sometimes debilitating emotional distress related to the traumatic event.
Sign of PTSD in Teens
Symptoms can include:
- sleep disruption
- anger problems
- panic disorder
Once almost exclusively associated with soldiers returning from battle, PTSD is a diagnosis assigned to people in all walks of life, including children and teens.
What Causes PTSD in Teens?
PTSD in teens typically occurs when an experience that is traumatizing is not adequately processed. In these cases, the trauma, or emotional injury, does not heal and so continues to express itself symptomatically.
Of course, the most obvious traumatizing experiences are extreme events like war, rape, and battery. But experts are now acknowledging that individuals differ in their sensitivity to disruptive experiences and, therefore, have expanded the definition of a traumatic event.
Potentially traumatic events can include such things as:
Adoption: Even at-birth adoptions can cause trauma since the child is suddenly separated from the one person it recognizes chemically as his or her parent.
Disaster: Researchers have seen ripples of traumatic reactions to hurricanes, earthquakes, floods fires in the neighborhood or home, and other natural events where the individual feels threatened.
Family Events: Divorce, a parent’s job loss, even the death of a grandparent can trigger a trauma response.
Car Accidents: Car accidents in which one’s life seemed at risk or in which there was loss of life or serious injury can have long-lasting, post-traumatic emotional impacts.
Helping a Traumatized Teenager
In their effort to help, parents often either minimize or pathologize their child’s trauma experience. Both responses, says clinical psychologist Jack Hinman, can be counterproductive. It’s important to normalize the child or teen’s emotional response to the traumatic event–whatever that may be. “Immediately pathologizing the teen’s response can disrupt the normal, natural healing process,” says Hinman. “Ignoring her feelings, similarly, can slow or stop the child’s progress toward healing.”
Hinman recommends that parents keep the following tips in mind if they suspect their child has an unhealed emotional trauma:
- Normalize their experience by listening, encouraging–but not forcing–communication about it, and providing a safe place to talk about feelings.
- Avoid pathologizing your child’s emotional reactions. Prematurely assigning clinical labels like PTSD and providing too much intervention too soon can exacerbate the problem by sending the message that your child’s responses are abnormal and that they are helpless to cope and move through it.
- Encourage your child to feel what she feels without judging herself or her reactions–trauma responses may include survivor’s guilt, difficulty sleeping, anxiety, etc. Avoidance of emotions/memories related to the trauma can create situations in which PTSD can develop.
- When your child has a thought related to the event, encourage her to put it on the table and discuss it. A seemingly compulsive need to talk about the same things repeatedly is a normal part of the healing process.
- Participation in processing groups comprised of people with similar experiences can help normalize your child’s experience and reaction.
- Many teens feel that “I should just get over it and stop talking about it over and over.” So make it okay to stay in the feelings and talk about them.
- A more sensitive family member may have more intense reactions and a slower healing process than other family members. This can make that child feel uncomfortable with her responses, bottling up thoughts and feelings that she needs to process in order to heal. Remain curious and patient if you suspect this is the case.
- If your teen’s reaction to trauma persists or seems to worsen over time, seek outside help to diagnose and treat the issue.
By Jack Hinman, former clinical director of Sunrise Residential Treatment Center