PTSD: What Parents Should Know About Treating Teens and Young Adults

Some people with PTSD, teens included, do well on antidepressant medications. These medications balance the chemicals in the brain. Imbalanced chemicals might be why some people are prone to PTSD and others are not.

Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD: Many people associate the condition with war veterans. While PTSD is common among those who have seen the travesties of war, it’s also a condition that can affect anyone who has gone through a traumatic event. If your teen has PTSD, here are some things you should know about the condition and the different types of PTSD treatment available.

What Is PTSD?

PTSD is a mental health condition that sometimes follows a traumatic event. It does not necessarily follow immediately; some children and teens with PTSD will develop it weeks, months, or even years after something traumatic happened. The types of trauma that can cause PTSD include:

  • Witnessing violence
  • Being the victim of violence
  • Being the victim of any type of abuse (physical, emotional, sexual)
  • Having an injury
  • Having a serious illness (particularly if it results in hospitalization)
  • Fires
  • Tornadoes
  • Hurricanes
  • Earthquake
  • Car accidents
  • Seeing someone die

Many teens who experience these types of events do not develop PTSD. However, some do.


Symptoms of PTSD

It’s important to be aware of the symptoms of PTSD. They include:

  • Avoiding the people or places associated with the event. This might mean avoiding visiting a relative in the hospital after a routine surgery because the teen had a hospital stay that was traumatic.
  • Guilt, fear, or shame surrounding the event.
  • A refusal to talk about what happened or forgetting part or all of what happened.
  • Having a hard time eating or sleeping.
  • Jumpiness or extreme emotional arousal at times; for example, your teen might suddenly get very irritable and angry if someone enters a room unexpectedly.
  • Flashbacks, where the teen relives the event over and over again. These flashbacks might also be experienced as nightmares.

If you notice these symptoms in your teen, PTSD treatment may be necessary.

Dangers of PTSD in Teens

PTSD is a mental health condition that can lead to reckless, dangerous, or suicidal behaviors. A teen who is in the midst of a flashback might find themselves in physical danger; for example, they might lose control of their car or fall off of something they’re standing on. More likely, however, is that untreated PTSD can lead to additional mental health issues.

For example, many teens with untreated PTSD will attempt to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. This can set them up for an addiction that will take a lifetime to recover from. Substance abuse can also lead to driving while under the influence and other legal difficulties.

People with PTSD can also develop obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety disorders, or depression. These conditions can even lead to suicide. If your teen has PTSD, be sure that you are aware of the signs of suicidal ideation so you can take prompt action if you see them.

PTSD Treatment for Teens

The good news is that with PTSD treatment, your teen can live a normal and happy life. There are many treatment options available, including therapy, medication, and lifestyle changes.

Therapy for PTSD

There are various types of therapy available for teens who are struggling with PTSD.

The most common, and perhaps the most effective, is cognitive behavioral therapy, commonly abbreviated as CBT. Look for a practitioner who is well-versed in working with adolescents who have gone through trauma. Trauma-focused CBT can help teens learn not to be afraid of their memories.

Another type of therapy used for teens with PTSD is eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing, or EMDR. A fairly new type of therapy, EMDR relies on the patient remembering out loud what happened while moving his or her eyes back and forth rapidly. There is some speculation that the therapy is not effective, but anecdotal evidence suggests otherwise and there are no side effects or contraindications, so many parents, teens, and mental health care providers decide it’s worth a try.

Psychological first aid (PFA) is one more therapy that can be used following a traumatic event. This type of therapy allows teens to experience their feelings while assuring them that their feelings are normal and acceptable. It also helps teens learn to problem-solve and keep themselves calm.

Medications for PTSD

Some people with PTSD, teens included, do well on antidepressant medications. These medications balance the chemicals in the brain. Imbalanced chemicals might be why some people are prone to PTSD and others are not.

Teenagers, in particular, are sometimes at risk of side effects when taking antidepressants. It’s important to sit down with your teen and his or her mental health practitioner to find out whether the benefits outweigh these risks. In many cases, they do. Taking the medication exactly as prescribed and not stopping them “cold turkey” is one way to minimize potentially dangerous side effects.

Be aware that it can take several weeks for the medication to work. Also, medication dosages might need to be tweaked over the first several weeks or months of PTSD treatment; this is normal and nothing to worry about. Do not let your teen stop taking the medications without direct instruction from their doctor to do so.

Lifestyle Changes for PTSD

While lifestyle changes alone won’t cure PTSD, it’s important that your teen follow a healthy lifestyle. This will keep him or her physically healthy and might also boost his or her mental health. For example, your teen should be getting about nine hours of sleep each night. If they’re having trouble sleeping due to insomnia or nightmares, bring that up to his or her doctor.

They should also be exercising regularly, preferably on a daily or near-daily basis. And encourage him or her to stick to a healthy diet. All of these strategies can lessen anxiety and depression and can make them feel better in all aspects of their health.

Finding out that your teen has PTSD can be overwhelming and stressful. Be sure to care for yourself during this time. Don’t be afraid to seek counseling for yourself; cognitive behavioral therapy for you, as a parent, can help you better communicate with and support your teen. Keep in mind that PTSD is not a lifelong sentence; most people improve with PTSD treatment and are able to go on to live happy, healthy lives. Let your teen know that things will get better over time and that you will be there every step of the way.

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