Here’s How Adolescent Trauma Affects Mental Health

It should come as no surprise that some of the people dealing with mental health issues in adulthood experienced events during their childhood or adolescence that made it difficult for them to cope as adults. Trauma during childhood or the teen years can involve just about any stressful event. Some children are greatly affected by their parents getting a divorce or having to move frequently. Others are in abusive homes or witness someone else being abused. Illness, injury, accidents, and similar situations are also stressful and can cause a traumatized response. It’s important to understand how adolescent trauma can affect your child’s health later in life.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

A child or a teen who experiences a trauma can suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Often thought of as a condition affecting war veterans, PTSD can actually affect anyone who has undergone some type of trauma at any time of life. The types of trauma that can cause PTSD vary from person to person and could include:

  • being in or witnessing a car accident
  • being hospitalized
  • being sexually assaulted
  • being physically abused

The symptoms of PTSD can start right away after the trauma, or they can start years later. Your teen might seem to recover well from a traumatic event, but in later years, he or she might start experience symptoms including:

  • trouble sleeping
  • flashbacks to the event
  • feeling guilty or ashamed
  • avoiding situations that remind them of what happened

If these PTSD symptoms are bothersome and interfere with everyday life, it’s important that your adult child see a therapist to help them get past the event. Methods like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR) can be effective treatments for PTSD.

Alcoholism and Other Substance Abuse Issues

Many times, people who suffer a traumatic event want to do whatever they can to put the episode behind them. For some teens, this could lead to self-medicating with alcohol and other substances. Using recreational drugs and alcohol as a teen can set them up for a host of problems; one of these is addiction. Teens who are dealing with adolescent trauma might be more likely than the average teen to begin using, abusing, and becoming addicted to various substances.

In some cases, alcoholism and other types of substance abuse can happen in later years, either as part of or unrelated to PTSD. Your teen might have enough support to get through the initial trauma, but as an adult, might begin to flounder and spiral into a period of depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues. This can cause self-medication that leads to addiction. If you know that your teenager or your adult child is beginning to rely on substances to cope after a trauma, consider whether an intervention is appropriate.

Consequences of Coping Behaviors

Many teens who go through a traumatic experience fall into coping behaviors that are unhealthy and can have long-term consequences. For example, a teen who begins overeating as a response to high stress levels can suffer from obesity and its related complications, such as heart disease or diabetes, as an adult. On the other hand, a teen may begin to drastically limit what he or she eats in an effort to gain control after an uncontrollable situation; this could lead to a lifelong battle with an eating disorder, such as anorexia or bulimia.

Another unhealthy coping behavior that some teens who have experienced trauma begin to exhibit is having unprotected sex. This can lead to sexually transmissible infections as well as unwanted pregnancy. Both of these consequences can affect a teen well into the future, both physically and mentally.

Hormones and Inflammation

There is evidence that the problems experienced later in life after adolescent trauma can stem from physical causes. Being under great stress as a child or teen can permanently affect the way the body handles inflammation. It can cause greater inflammation throughout the body and this can cause an unhealthy hormonal response to subsequent traumas and stressful events. Excessive inflammation in the body can cause a host of problems, from metabolic disorders and heart disease to depression and problems with menopause in women.

Excess inflammation can also cause problems such as:

  • autoimmune diseases
  • rashes
  • allergies
  • aches and pains

These are sometimes vague conditions that are hard to diagnose, so it’s worth keeping this in mind, particularly if your adult child has experienced a traumatic event during adolescence or childhood.


What to Do to Help Your Teen

If you have a teen who has experienced adolescent trauma, it’s important to take the steps necessary to minimize the chances that it will affect him or her into adulthood. Depending on the type of trauma, you might need to take your child to the emergency room or the doctor for physical treatment. The doctor can often recommend a follow-up with a mental health professional who can help your teen begin to learn coping mechanisms for dealing with what happened.

In some cases, a teen will experience a trauma that you don’t know about right away. Another possibility is that an occurrence that is not always traumatic has greatly impacted a teen. For example, if your teen is hospitalized for an acute injury or illness, he or she might begin to experience PTSD symptoms. If at any time you find out about a trauma or realize that an event is causing troubling symptoms, contact a mental health professional.

It can be difficult to know how adolescent trauma will affect your child now and into the future. By keeping up open communication with your teenager, you can become aware of any mental health red flags that begin to emerge over time. Also, keeping in contact with your child’s physician and letting him or her know about the traumatic event can allow them to recommend the right resources to help your teen. Don’t be afraid to seek counseling for your teen or for yourself if either of you is having difficulty coping.