Trauma can be extremely difficult to quantify and recognize, especially in children and teenagers. At their core, traumatic events are experiences that cause physical, emotional or psychological harm. Trauma can also be extremely variable: An event that causes lasting distress in one person may not have significant effect on another.
Teenagers may develop trauma as a response to any number of events. Single incidents like accidents or natural disasters may be responsible, as well as ongoing issues like domestic violence, serious illness, or accumulating stress. In some cases, a teen may develop trauma because of something a friend or classmate experiences.
Childhood psychological trauma is unfortunately quite common. Some sources state 15 percent of girls and 14 percent of boys go through at least one traumatic event. Other findings state numbers as high as 43 percent for both girls and boys. Of the children who have trauma, 3-15 percent of girls and 1-6 percent of boys develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Common Traumatic Experiences for Teens
It’s impossible to list every event that could give a teenager trauma. However, several issues regularly leave marks on a person’s psyche. For children and teenagers, some of the most damaging trauma are those involving abuse, especially physical or sexual abuse. Neglect is another common source of trauma.
Beyond these, medical traumas are also quite common in teens. Chronic illness, hospitalizations, or accidents are all capable of leaving long-standing effects. In the last several years, teenagers have had to manage a global pandemic and everything that a situation of that scale brings, from the infection itself to schooling changes, lack of social activity, economic challenges, and more.
Household challenges, such as difficult divorces, mental illness, exposure to violence, and substance use disorders, also pose a significant threat to psychological and emotional wellbeing.
Additionally, children tend to heavily value their relationships with their peers, which can serve as another vehicle for trauma. Teens often face racism, discrimination and bullying. Beyond that, even if a person doesn’t experience these issues themselves, witnessing them can cause trauma.
Signs and Symptoms of Teenage Trauma
Every young person is different. However, several symptoms tend to affect most people with a history of trauma. Often, some issues develop immediately, while others may present themselves after a significant period.
- Feeling stunned, shocked, or frightened
- Feeling as if the world does not make sense
- General frustration
- Regressed behavior and loss of ability
Short-Term Symptoms (Weeks):
- Separation issues, such as “clinging” to people they are comfortable with
- Drop in initiative and confidence
- Thinking and learning changes
- Behavioral and emotional changes, such as being quiet, noisy, irritable, or overly “good”
- Repetitions in speech
- Refusal to speak or think about the triggering event
- Repetitively mentioning or discussing the event
- Issues with memory
- Substance use
- Eating disorders
- Self-harm behaviors
Medium-Term Symptoms (Months):
- Anxiety and depression
- Developing trauma syndromes, like PTSD
- Social withdrawal
- Avoiding places and situations related to the event
- Powerful anger, guilt or sadness
- Extreme reactions to minor issues and irritations
- Startling easily
- Becoming sexually active or increasing sexual activity
- Loss of interest in hobbies, friends, school, or other aspects of life
- Reduced school performance
While these symptoms often develop along this timeline, any symptom can develop at any time following a traumatic event. A person may even suppress any reaction to the event, only for symptoms to emerge suddenly later in life.
Why Trauma Needs Treatment
How parents, guardians, caretakers and other important people in a teenager’s life respond to their trauma can have a dramatic impact. Without proper help, a person’s trauma may haunt them years later, causing negative mental health effects. Even if we think that an event hasn’t caused any damage, stoicism often stems from a desperate attempt to cope with trauma by detaching from it.
A teenager often may not realize they are exhibiting signs of trauma, but it can affect their long-term mental, physical, and emotional health. Research shows links between traumatic events and serious conditions. For example, people with high levels of trauma in their past have three times the risk for lung cancer and heart disease.
Treating trauma isn’t just about helping a person achieve a healthy mental state. It’s also about ensuring they can have a healthy future.
Treatments and Therapies for Childhood Trauma
Ultimately, families have a wealth of options when it comes to treating and managing childhood and teenage trauma. Everyone recovers from challenging experiences in a unique way and in their own time. Some teens may be able to recover after a few weeks of treatment, while others may not improve for years. Therapy is far from a straightforward path and will have many ups and downs.
To address emotional trauma, a person must talk through their issues. Counseling provides a safe, healthy environment for a teen to discuss the source of their pain without judgment. Depending on their needs, this may involve one-on-one or group sessions.
When treating and discussing trauma, a professional can use several different forms of therapy. One of the most common is cognitive processing therapy. This is a specific type of cognitive behavior therapy that can reduce symptoms of trauma and trauma disorders. Over several sessions, a person will discuss and write down the event, examining the feelings it creates as they do. This helps address and slowly adjust the brain’s reaction to trauma.
Another common treatment method is prolonged exposure therapy. This is a particularly effective option for managing scenarios that cause anxiety. If a teen was in a serious car accident and now struggles with vehicles, this therapy may involve short instances of sitting in a car. The counselor will help the patient learn to breathe through the situation and face it.
Some professionals may also employ a range of other therapies that could help, including music or art therapy.
If medical intervention is necessary, prescription medications like antidepressants and anxiety medications can help limit symptoms while using therapy to address the root cause.
Parents and caregivers can help the recovery process and their teens by providing an environment where the child feels safe. Alongside a professional’s efforts, helping the teen re-establish connections with other people, activities, and routines—regardless of size or importance—is key. Remain flexible and patient, but gently and firmly follow the instructions your counselor gives.
If you or someone you love is struggling with anxiety, sleep problems, or other mental health symptoms after a traumatic event, reach out to our professionals at FHE Health. We can discuss your symptoms and advise you on the best path for recovery.