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Key Takeaways:

  • PTSD is an anxiety disorder that can happen after experiencing a traumatic event.
  • “Trauma” is anything distressing enough to break a teen’s sense of emotional and physical safety and security.
  • PTSD can be treated with a combination of therapy and medications.

Today’s world is complex and often considered unforgiving and cruel, especially to the youth. And unfortunately, many young people experience traumatizing events as a result. PTSD in teens is more prevalent than ever. In fact, a study that measured mental health symptoms in nearly 500 adolescents found that 28.5% of the teens were experiencing moderate to high levels of PTSD [*]. These figures have raised concerns regarding the well-being of youth, emphasizing the importance of treating conditions like PTSD and, if possible, preventing them.

Here, we’ll discuss the symptoms of PTSD as well as the causes and treatment measures that can be taken to ensure teens can live a healthy and fulfilled life, despite going through trauma.

What is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in Teens?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder that can come about after experiencing a traumatic event. PTSD can develop in teens who experience a traumatic event personally, witness traumatic events, or hear about trauma that has affected a loved one.

“Trauma” can refer to anything distressing enough to break a teen’s sense of emotional and physical safety and security. The more severe the trauma, the more likely a teen will be affected by PTSD symptoms. This is true for trauma that develops in the adolescent years as well as childhood trauma.

What are the Signs of PTSD in Teens?

There are several signs of PTSD in teens, including the following:

  • Recurring thoughts of the event
  • Nightmares
  • Flashbacks
  • Easily startled
  • Hypervigilance
  • Irritable behavior
  • Feelings of guilt or shame
  • Feelings of isolation
  • Depression
  • Emotional numbness
  • Angry outbursts
  • Avoiding anything that reminds them of the event
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Low self-esteem

Some of these are also signs of childhood trauma in adults, which can develop during the childhood and teen years through to adulthood.

What Causes PTSD in Teens?

PTSD in teenagers is caused by a traumatic experience or event. Some traumas may be apparent, such as witnessing violence or natural disasters. However, some traumas may be undefined and unknown, such as abuse.

Here are the most common causes of PTSD in teens:

  • Being a victim of abuse or violence
  • Witnessing crime or violent events
  • Witnessing domestic or community violence
  • Experiencing natural disasters
  • Being involved in vehicular accidents
  • Witnessing a family member struggle with a serious disease
  • Losing a loved one
  • Dealing with childhood traumas, such as abandonment or divorce

Which Teens Are at Risk for PTSD?

The type of the traumatic event and the intensity of exposure will affect how PTSD develops in teens. For instance, the proximity of a teen to the traumatic event (such as a school shooting) will directly affect how likely they are to develop the condition.

Other than exposure variables, several risk factors influence which teens are at risk for PTSD:

  • Female gender
  • Pre-existing psychiatric disorders
  • Parental psychopathology
  • Previous exposure to trauma
  • Low social support

How is PTSD Diagnosed in Teens?

Not all teens who are exposed to traumatic events will develop PTSD. However, if you suspect your teen is showing signs of the condition, then the first step would be to get a diagnosis from a mental health professional.

Start by approaching your teen’s pediatrician. They will do an initial check-up to rule out other disorders and conditions and then refer you to a child psychologist or psychiatrist. These mental health experts will then use assessment criteria from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) to determine whether your teen is experiencing PTSD [*].

How is PTSD Treated in Teens?

A combination of therapy and medication is effective in treating the symptoms of PTSD in teens and healing from childhood trauma.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) helps your teen by allowing them to understand their thought patterns and reactions to the traumatic event. This method introduces tools to cope with distorted thinking that may result from experiencing the trauma. A more specific form of CBT called Trauma-Focused CBT (TF-CBT) uses talking and learning activities (such as trauma worksheets) guided by a mental health therapist.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is another type of psychotherapy that can treat teen PTSD. EMDR helps teens process upsetting thoughts, feelings, and memories related to the trauma with specific eye movements. Working through traumas this way often provides relief from PTSD symptoms.

Some medications can also alleviate the symptoms of PTSD, such as antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs [*].

How to Help Prevent PTSD in Teens

The reality is that it will not always be possible to prevent PTSD. However, some measures can mitigate the impact of traumatic experiences in adolescents. Here are some strategies you can try:

  • Provide trauma education. The more teens know about the way trauma works, the more equipped they will be to manage their symptoms. Understanding their experiences helps by reducing confusion or self-blame. You can choose from the best books on childhood trauma to educate both yourself and your teen.
  • Create a supportive environment. Make your home a supportive and nurturing environment that promotes open communication, emotional expression, and healthy relationships. Encourage a sense of trust, security, and belonging.
  • Teach coping and stress management skills. Teens need help developing coping strategies to build resilience and manage any stressful situations they may encounter. Teach them relaxation techniques, problem-solving skills, and healthy emotional expression.
  • Encourage healthy relationships. Forming and strengthening positive social connections with family, friends, and supportive peers can act as a protective factor against developing PTSD.
  • Address risk factors. Identify and eliminate potential risk factors for additional trauma exposure, such as violence, bullying, or unstable living conditions. Safe environments and access to supportive resources are crucial for teens.

Tips for Helping a Teenager Live with PTSD

If your teen is struggling with the symptoms of PTSD, then there are various things you can do to improve the situation.

  • Reduce exposure to media. Media exposure can be troublesome for teens with PTSD, especially if they have witnessed traumatic events like school shootings. If you encounter reports on TV or online, then do your best to address what your teen saw and reassure them.
  • Promote physical activity. Teens may feel like isolating themselves after experiencing trauma, but it is better to engage in physical activity. Doing so boosts endorphins and other hormones that can help stabilize mood and promote restful sleep.
  • Engage with your teenager. Spending time with your teen and doing activities together can significantly improve their well-being. Do something you enjoy, such as watching a movie or eating lunch together. Allow them to express their feelings without pressuring them.
  • Provide a safe space. Make your home a safe space for your teen. You can start by establishing healthy routines. This will help counteract the unpredictability and insecurity your teen may be feeling. Managing your stress and keeping promises will also help your teen feel safer.

When to Seek for Professional Help

A teenager who has experienced trauma should seek professional help if they:

  • Don’t feel better after two weeks
  • Feel highly distressed or anxious
  • Are constantly on edge or irritable
  • Have difficulty performing tasks at school or home
  • Are unable to respond emotionally to others
  • Avoid issues by being busy
  • Take risks or do not care what happens to themselves
  • Use alcohol, drugs, or gambling to cope
  • Have severe sleeping difficulties
  • Have suicidal thoughts or ideations

The Bottom Line

PTSD can be extremely challenging to cope with. As the childhood trauma quote goes, “An unacknowledged trauma is like a wound that never heals over and may start to bleed again at any time.” By acknowledging and treating the symptoms of PTSD, you make it possible for teens to have healthy and fulfilling lives despite having lived with trauma. Whether it’s providing a supportive environment or ensuring they regularly go to therapy with a licensed mental health professional, we owe it to our children to look after their well-being.

Explore our collection of trauma worksheets for additional psychoeducation and activities to support teens on their journey of trauma recovery.

References:

  1. Selçuk E, Demir A, Erbay L, et al. Anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms in adolescents during the COVID-19 outbreak and associated factors. 16 September 2021.
  2. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. DSM-5 Diagnostic Criteria for PTSD. 2014.
  3. D Ganz & L Sher. Suicidal behavior in adolescents with post-traumatic stress disorder. August 2010.

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