What Causes PTSD In Teens?
Post-traumatic stress disorder (commonly known as PTSD) is the mental, emotional and physical fallout that follows a traumatic event or situation. Because of their highly sensitive nature and underdeveloped coping skills, children and teens are especially susceptible to post-traumatic stress disorder. Traumatic events or a negative and unstable lifestyle can easily overwhelm a child or teen, leaving them to feel that the world is an unsafe, dangerous or out-of-control place. Some situations and events that may trigger PTSD in adolescents and teens include: violent assaults (such as rape or physical attacks), bullying, car accidents, senseless acts of violence (such as school shootings), natural disasters, sexual abuse, emotional and physical abuse, domestic violence in the home, a traumatic divorce or family separation or serious illness.
Studies have shown that approximately 14 to 43 percent of children and teens will experience at least one traumatic event. Of these children, approximately three to 15 percent of girls and one to percent of boys will develop some form of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Trauma and PTSD
PTSD (or post-traumatic stress disorder) is a mental health problem that many develop following a traumatic event. Although trauma can look different for everyone, it typically involves experiencing or witnessing a life-threatening event, such as a car accident, a natural disaster, physical or sexual abuse, or war.
It is quite common to have upsetting memories, feel on edge, or see changes in sleeping or eating patterns for a period of time following the trauma. Yet, if symptoms persist for more than a couple months, a diagnosis of PTSD may be appropriate.
Common Symptoms of PTSD in Teens
If your teen has been through a traumatic event, there are some common symptoms to be aware of.
- Reliving the event – People with PTSD may re-live the traumatic event through nightmares, flashbacks, and/or difficult and disturbing mental images.
- Avoidance – those with PTSD tend to avoid things that are reminders of the traumatic event. This might mean avoidance of people, places, activities, or certain objects. Also common is avoidance in terms of opening up and talking about the trauma.
- Emotional numbness – a sensation of feeling detached, dissociated, and/or numb is very typical in those with PTSD. While the person experiencing emotional numbness may not actively trying to numb out, this is often the brains attempt to psychologically “protect” the individual.
- Anxiety – as a result of the trauma, people with PTSD often have higher levels of stress hormones in the body. These stress hormones can then cause those with PTSD to experience hyper-vigilance (feeling jumpy, on edge, easily startled, irritable). This anxiety can also contribute to difficulties with concentration and sleep.
EFFECTS OF PTSD IN ADOLESCENTS AND TEENS
Adolescents that are dealing with PTSD can find themselves in a downward spiral of thoughts and actions that can be difficult to get out of without proper help and guidance. Untreated PTSD in teens may result in a number concurrent illnesses and disorders, including:
Inability to form bonds with others
Inappropriate sexual behavior
Self-harm or suicidal thoughts and behaviors
Borderline personality disorder
How Can You Help Your Teen?
Watching your teen struggle with the symptoms of PTSD can be extremely challenging. That being said, there are things you can do to help support your teen in healing from his or her trauma.
- Encourage your teen to talk – providing your child ongoing opportunities to talk about the traumatic experience(s), or simply spending one on one time together is a crucial aspect of coping with PTSD. Having a strong support system can assist the teen to feel safe and encouraged.
- Don’t pressure your teen – talking about traumatic events is difficult for anyone, especially when it comes to teenagers. Although it is a fundamental aspect of healing, it may take your child time to open up.
- Be honest – if your teen has experienced trauma, it is important to steer clear of acting as though everything is OK. Although age may be a factor in how much information you share, it is important to be honest and open with your child.
- Education – helping educate your teen about anxiety, trauma, and PTSD is vital to his or her wellbeing. Knowing the facts can help your teen understand their personal experience and validate what they are going through.
SYMPTOMS OF POST-TRAUMATIC STRESS DISORDER IN ADOLESCENTS AND TEENS
Children and adolescents that have been through any sever trauma often have post-traumatic stress symptoms that can last for months or even years after the event. The severity of symptoms depends greatly on family support, the victim’s proximity to the event and how soon treatment for PTSD is sought. Symptoms of PTSD will typically develop within the first three months following the traumatic event, but may not surface for months or years later.
Common symptoms of PTSD in children and teens include:
Marked change in behavior, such as reckless behavior or angry outbursts
Regression to past childlike tendencies (such as bedwetting or sucking a thumb)
Loss of interest in previously-enjoyed activities
Complaints of headaches and stomach aches
Shying away from physical contact
Appears shaky or nervous and stressed out
Increased arousal and hyper-vigilance
“Flashbacks” of the traumatic event
Trouble concentrating in school
Avoidance of memories or situations that trigger memories of the event
Unfounded fears or consuming worry
Inability to trust others
How Can Your Teen Cope?
Many with PTSD develop unhealthy coping strategies, such as drugs or alcohol, as a way to “numb out” from the difficult feelings associated with the experienced trauma(s).
- Keeping a routine – structure and schedule are important aspects of stability in any teenager’s life. Yet this becomes even more important when a teen struggles with PTSD, as he or she tends to view the world through a heightened, fear-based lens. Maintaining regular meal, homework, activity, etc. times can help reduce this fear, and provide a sense of security.
- Breathing techniques – anxiety associated with PTSD triggers can be greatly reduced by slowing one’s breathing.
- Progressive Muscle Relaxation – a common side effect of the anxiety associated with trauma and PTSD is muscle tension. Unfortunately, this physical muscle tension can signal “danger” in the brain, causing hyper-vigilance. By learning progressive muscle relaxation, your teen can manage the muscle tension, and experience an increased sense of calm.
- Exercise – physical activity can help with mood-stabilization, decreasing anxiety, and maintaining a regular sleep schedule.
- Nutrition – food can have a significant impact on your teen’s mood and therefore, overall ability to manage emotions. A healthy, well-rounded diet consisting of fruits, vegetables, high-quality proteins, and healthy fats, is a great approach to coping with the symptoms of PTSD.
- Engage in activities – most likely, there is one (or more) activity your teen enjoys doing. Although there may be a decreased sense of motivation to engage as a result of the PTSD, it is imperative he or she continues to participate in these enjoyable activities. Getting back to a loved sport or hobby can greatly contribute to healing from, or at least managing, the symptoms of PTSD.
- Learn grounding techniques – a common side effect of trauma and PTSD are flashbacks. Although flashbacks are a normal response to a traumatic event, they can be extremely frightening. Learning ways to ground oneself, and come back to the present moment are imperative to moving through the flashbacks in a healthy manner. Some quick ways to ground oneself are:
- Name all the objects around you
- Run cold water over your hands or splash your face with water
- Check in with yourself and label the emotions you are experiencing
- Pick out five red, blue, green, etc. objects in the room
- Take off your shoes, put your feet on the ground, and describe what you feel
- Repeat a mantra such as “I am here; I am safe.”
ADOLESCENT MENTAL HEALTH FACILITY FOR PTSD
Proper treatment following the traumatic event is vital to prevent PTSD complications. With proper evaluation, treatment and support, most children and teens who have PTSD will recover and go on to live happy and productive lives. If your child is struggling with PTSD or having trouble coping with a traumatic life event, it is key that you seek professional help, as soon as possible. Proper mental health treatment can help a child or teen develop the coping skills necessary to resume their daily lives.
Knowing ways to cope with the unfortunate side effects of PTSD is significant when it comes to healthy symptom management. Regardless, many teens with PTSD may require more formal mental health intervention as well. If you think your teen may need further treatment, contact Polaris Teen Center at 1-844-836-0222 to find out more about treatment options and services.