Teens Trauma

In a study carried out by researchers in Boston Children’s Hospital, 61% of children and teens between the ages of 13 and 17 have been exposed to at least a traumatic event in their lives.

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Symptoms Of Trauma In Teens

There are several markers of trauma in adolescents and teenagers. The major trauma symptoms are avoidance syndrome, panic attacks, intense fear, nightmares, and flashbacks. Avoidance syndrome is a maladaptive coping mechanism in traumatized people where they avoid people, places, or situations that may trigger the events that have traumatized them. Other symptoms include:

- numbness
- Emotionally un reactive
- difficulty in concentration
- restlessness-isolation
- Easily startled-Insomnia
- Aggressiveness-Confusion
- Replaying their trauma
- Suicidal thoughts
- Feeling on edge
-A feeling of shame and guilt

sad girl


The human body responds to dangerous and stressful situations by releasing chemicals and hormones that activate a fight or flight response. Several possible events may cause cause trauma for an adolescent child or teenager. A major cause of trauma in children and teenagers is abuse. Of 3 million reports by Children Protection Services involving up to 5.5million children in the United States, 30% of the trauma were cases of abuse. From these abuse cases, 65% were neglect and abandonment, 18% were physical abuse, 10% were sexual abuse, and 7% were mental abuse.

Other events that are responsible for trauma in teenagers and children include:

  • Rape
  • Witnessing a natural disaster e.g flood, hurricanes
  • Parent divorce
  • Diagnosis with life threatening illness or disease
  • witnessing violence
  • Bullying
  • Death of family, friend or loved one
  • Accidents
  • witnessing a war or unrest
  • Domestic violence

Teenagers And Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

Acute stress disorder and Post traumatic stress disorder are types of anxiety disorders that occur when teens go through very stressful, intense situations. They are both mental illnesses; however, symptoms of anxiety in acute stress disorders only persist for less than a month, while trauma symptoms in PTSD patients are long term. As defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a mental illness that affects people who have experience one or more traumatic events.

Although traumatizing events in children, adolescents, and teenagers are particularly overwhelming, causing intense fear, helplessness, or panic in the children, the body’s immediate fight or flight reaction to dangerous or stressful situations subside. Consequently, most children eventually recover, even if they battle with an acute stress disorder. Regardless of this, about 15.9% of these young people develop a Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Several factors contribute to the development and diagnosis of PTSD in an individual. One of these factors is the living condition and economic class of the individual. An epidemiologic study in high income countries reported that while a high percentage of the young adults that have had a traumatizing experience may show signs of post traumatic stress, only 8-10% developed post traumatic stress disorder. However, in low income countries, up to 25% of children that have were exposed to a traumatizing situation developed post traumatizing stress disorder.

Children in non urban areas have fewer reports of PTSD than children in urban areas where they have experienced mugging, gang wars, and interpersonal violence more closely. Children in areas of ongoing wars or refugee children in places where basic resources and emergency aids are unavailable even in case of natural disasters are at more risk of developing post traumatic stress disorders. Other risk factors for the development of PTSD include the nature of the trauma, child response to the trauma, the child, and family.

boy looking into light

Nature Of The Trauma

Children who have experienced severe life threatening, traumatizing situations such as natural disasters, school shootings, repeated aggravated sexual and physical violence by a care giver, car accidents, and terrorist attacks are more likely to develop PTSD as these situations are strong triggers of the disorder. Children that have experienced multiple trauma are also at more risk of developing PTSD than children that have only experienced a single trauma

Nature Of The Child

Children who have a certain disability, illness, or mental disorder are more at risk of developing post traumatic stress disorder compared to children with no previous mental health concern or illness. Girls are also more prone to this disorder than boys. A reason for this may be because girls are at more risk of PTSD triggering events such as sexual assault and rape.

Family Of The Child

A child with a well functioning, supportive family is less likely to develop a post traumatic stress disorder compared to a child without supportive family members or with separated parents going through a divorce. When a child goes through a traumatizing effect, the parents’ supportiveness and presence help quicken the recovery.

Child’s Response To The Trauma

Children who have more intense responses such as higher heartrate during immediate hospitalization after trauma, looking for someone to blame, elevated levels of anger, or avoidance, greater dissociation, and more negative interpretation and evaluation of their trauma are more prone to develop PTSD.

PTSD And Other Mental Disorders

Children suffering from post traumatic stress disorders can develop other mental illnesses as a result. While PTSD itself is an anxiety disorder, it may also result in other forms of anxiety disorders, including panic disorders, social anxiety disorders, phobias, and obsessive compulsive disorder that were previously not there. The trauma they have faced and their attempt to avoid places, people, or situations that could trigger them may cause them to develop any of these other anxiety disorders over some time.

Children and teenagers that develop PTSD may also turn to alcohol, drugs, and substance abuse as a way to cope with their emotions and feelings. This behavior is particularly common is teenagers who have experienced sever traumas and may become addictive, giving way to another mental illness called Substance Abuse disorder.

Another common mental disorder that children with post traumatic stress disorder develop is a depressive disorder. PTSD leaves these individuals feeling extreme sadness and hopeless without a possible solution, which often causes them to isolate and estrange themselves from other people. Following their sadness and hopeless, they get depressed. Teenagers that develop PTSD may also develop suicidal and self harm tendencies.

When PTSD leads to or diagnosed with another mental illness, it is known as psychiatric comorbidity.

Diagnosis And Treatment Of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder In Teens

Several symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder make itharder to distinguish from other mental disorders. However, when these signsare noticed in a child or teenager and taken to a health facility forassessment, evaluation, and treatment by a health professional,  Certain symptoms differentiate it from othermental disorders. These sysmptoms include :

  • Re-experiencing: Recurrent Thoughts and dreamsabout the trauma even when the child doesn’t want to think about it. Thesedreams and thoughts are usually involuntary and uncontrollable.
  • Increased arousal in the child or teenager
  • Avoidance or numbing: the child or teenager attempts to avoid places, people, or situations that may remind them of the trauma.

According to the Diagnosis and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, for the diagnosis of PTSD, the child or teenager must show at least on re-experiencing symptom, two increased arousal symptoms, and three avoidance or numbing symptoms.

Fortunately, trauma and PTSD in teenagers can be treated. In the case of trauma, the healing process involves parents and family members. They can help by attempting communication and rebuilding relationships with their teenagers to make them feel safe and secure. It is also good to be patient with them, listen to them, and reassure them by letting them know that experiencing trauma is not a bad or abnormal thing. However, when parents or caregivers notice symptoms of severe trauma of PTSD in their teenagers, seeking treatment from a mental health professional.

Treatment of PTSD by health professionals may vary depending on the assessment, evaluation, and recommendation of the professional therapist. Some of the treatment methods include:

  • Physiotherapy: Also called talk therapy, this includes Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT). A professional uses trauma-focused therapy to help the child identify and sieve through negative and illogical thoughts they may have developed as a result of their trauma. The professional help the child face his or her trauma and develop healthy ways to deal with situations that may trigger them.
  • Eye Movement desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR): the professional used guided eye movement exercises as the child retells his or her traumatic experiences. The professional simultaneously helps the teenager sieve through their cognitive and emotional responses to the trauma.
  • Play therapy: Used in younger children who may not be able to communicate efficiently, the professional makes use of art therapy, games, etc. to help the child deal with their experience
  • Medication Assisted therapy: The professional may prescribe drugs (antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications) alongside psychotherapy to help the teenager deal with their post traumatic stress disorder.

Other evidence-based PTSD treatment approaches include Cognitive Processing Therapy, Comprehensive resource model, somatic or body based therapy, and so on.  Group therapy, where the patient is put in a small group of other teenagers who have also had traumatizing experiences, may be used. This allows the patient to understand other people’s trauma and that trauma is not abnormal. Treatment is very important for teenagers undergoing PTSD or severe trauma, and the earlier the treatment begins, the easier the healing process.

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