This article will provide an in-depth exploration of PTSD in teens, aiming to raise awareness about symptoms and impacts and offer guidance on managing and supporting adolescents experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder.
Teen PTSD can come from several forms of exposure to trauma. Understanding the impact of trauma on young minds is imperative, especially for parents and educators. Studies indicate:
- Up to 43% of girls and boys will experience at least one trauma during their teens.
- Of those teens who are exposed to trauma, 15% of girls and up to 6% of boys will develop PTSD.
Teenagers may encounter several types of traumatic experiences such as:
- Physical abuse
- Emotional abuse
- Accidents or injuries
- School shootings
- Sexual abuse
- Loss of a loved one
- A natural disaster
- A car accident
- Witnessing abuse or injury
For example, based on reports from Child Protective Services, 65% of individuals suffer from neglect, with another 18% subjected to physical abuse.
Understanding PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder)
PTSD in teens starts to manifest somewhat similarly to adults, with a key exception: teenagers are more likely to struggle with aggressive or impulsive behaviors if they have PTSD.
In addition to PTSD symptoms in teens, research indicates that children can struggle with:
- Aggressive behavior
- Out-of-place or inappropriate sexual behavior
- Drug or alcohol abuse
- Feeling as though other people look down on them
- Low self-worth
- An inability to trust others
- Perpetual feelings of being apart from others
- Fear, sadness, or
Symptoms of PTSD in teenagers
Symptoms of PTSD in teens mirror PTSD in adults:
Flashbacks are one of the most common symptoms. They occur when an individual gets triggered and believes that they are back in the traumatic event. Flashbacks can take them out of the present moment and fill them with fear and anxiety.
Nightmares can have a similarly profound and negative effect, making it difficult to sleep for fear of nightmares involving memories of the event.
Emotional numbness is one of the spectrum of responses that can happen. In this case, symptoms of PTSD in teens manifest in the form of not caring about anything and being completely cut off emotionally. However, in other cases, it can result in the opposite end which is hypervigilance where teenagers are running around with increased levels of resting adrenaline and being hypervigilant about where the next attack might come from.
Those who experience the opposite end with hypervigilance and high rest-staying adrenaline rates are often prone to irritability as well.
Many teenagers struggle with avoidance behaviors, avoiding the things, places, or even people that remind them of the traumatic event. Someone who was involved in a severe car accident might avoid driving or being in the car.
Long-term impact of untreated teen PTSD on mental health and well-being
If left untreated, teen PTSD can have a severe impact on overall mental health and well-being. untreated PTSD can lead to secondary mental health disorders like depression and anxiety.
Risk factors for PTSD in teens
There are three key factors that influence whether or not someone will experience symptoms of PTSD in teens.
- The severity of the trauma
Teenagers who go through severe traumas are statistically more likely to struggle with teen PTSD. Events that involve harm or more likely to result in PTSD. Similarly, the more traumatic events to which a teenager or child is exposed, the increased likelihood of developing PTSD.
- How parents reacted to the experienced trauma
PTSD symptoms in teens can be much less severe if the individual received parental or familial support after the event and if that same individual had parents who did not overreact to the trauma.
For example, parents who continue to bring up a traumatic event that happened in their child’s life might increase the risk of developing PTSD as opposed to parents who remain calm and collected but loving and supportive after the fact.
- How close the teen was to the trauma
Teenagers who are physically or emotionally closer to the event can experience higher distress and are at a higher risk of developing PTSD. For example, a child who was involved in a school shooting and witnessed the death of their friends while also being shot at themselves is much more likely to develop PTSD symptoms compared to a student who was at the same school but didn’t actually see any of the shooters and remained safe in hiding the entire time.
Treatment options for teen PTSD
In some situations, PTSD symptoms in teens go away with time but if it’s been several months and the symptoms are still there, it might be time to consider alternative treatment. No matter what type of treatment is initiated, teenagers always do better when they have a strong support system from parents, guardians, and educators.
The most common treatment for PTSD in teens is cognitive behavioral therapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy for children and teens can be a trauma-focused form of cognitive behavioral therapy where teenagers are encouraged to talk about their memory involving the traumatic event while utilizing techniques to reduce stress and assert themselves.
This form of treatment can involve changing thoughts or behaviors that are incorrect having to do with the trauma.
For example, teenagers might begin to think that the world is completely unsafe or that no one is to be trusted after experiencing a traumatic event but this treatment approach can help them recognize that this may not be entirely true and there are certainly things that can be done to increase safety and self-awareness.
EMDR is another popular form of treatment especially for PTSD in adults. This form of treatment does not require talking about a traumatic experience out loud but rather we’re calling it in detail while following different eye movements in order to reprocess how the brain stores those memories. By changing the way in which the brain stores memories, PTSD symptoms in teens can be reduced, and triggers can be alleviated.
Tips for parents
- Offer love
The most important thing is to offer unconditional love. This does not necessarily take the form of hugging or holding your child, but reminding them that they are loved and always will be, no matter what happens.
- Normalize their emotions
Let them know that their responses are normal. Trauma can change us temporarily or permanently, but getting help can prevent the symptoms from changing us for the worse.
- Get help
If necessary, don’t avoid getting your teen the help they need.
Teens with PTSD can struggle with some of the same symptoms as adults, like nightmares, flashbacks, or irritability. Understanding the symptoms of PTSD in teens and what you can do to support a teen in need will make it easier to recognize when it is right to call on professional help and support.