A Parent’s Guide to Understanding Teen Dissociative Disorders

Dissociative disorders are comprised of several different but similar conditions that cause a lack of connection in a person’s thoughts. In years past, one well-known type of disorder was sometimes called “multiple personality disorder.” The dissociation that occurs with these conditions can happen just once in a person’s life, or it can become a long-term issue. About 2 percent of people have a dissociative experience at least once in their lives. If your teen is one of them, it’s understandably a scary experience for both of you. It’s important to keep in mind that all teen dissociative episodes are involuntary; your teen is not doing this for attention or because he or she has poor coping skills. By working with your teenager’s mental health care team, there’s a very good chance that the condition can be brought under control and that your child will go on to live a productive, happy life.

Types of Dissociative Disorders

Dissociative disorders come in three major types, and within each type, there’s a spectrum of severity. Someone might have one mild episode, while someone else might suffer with severe symptoms of one or more of the disorders on a regular basis.

  1. One type of the condition is dissociative amnesia. Like other forms of amnesia, this disorder involves forgetting information. It often happens after a traumatic event, and the person might not remember what happened to them for hours, days, or, rarely, months or years.
  2. Depersonalization disorder is when the person feels like they’re watching themselves and other people and things around them from a third-person vantage point. Whatever they’re going through at the moment seems more like a movie. This can also happen during trauma, but it can also happen throughout the victim’s life during routine activities.
  3. The third type, dissociative identity disorder, is what used to be called “multiple personality disorder.” The various “personalities” may cause the victim to hear voices and change his or her personality to match the persona that is dominant at any given time. Usually, when one “personality” is dominant, the other personality or personalities do not remember what happened during that time.

Symptoms of Dissociative Disorders

The symptoms of the teen dissociative disorder depend on which type the victim has. For example, someone with dissociative amnesia might not remember key information about him- or herself or about events that you know have occurred. All three types can include the following:

  • lack of self-identity
  • depression
  • anxiety
  • emotional numbness

A teen with any kind of dissociative disorder might be at risk of suicidal tendencies. If your teen is diagnosed or you suspect any of these conditions, be sure you know the signs of teen suicidal ideation and are prepared to take steps to act quickly in case you feel there’s an emergency. (Contact your child’s doctor or mental health professional immediately if you suspect that he or she is suicidal. If there’s an immediate danger, call 911 or head to the emergency room.)

Causes of Teen Dissociative Disorders

Most of the time, a person with a dissociative disorder developed it during or after some type of trauma. Some examples include physical or sexual abuse, combat, or being the victim of a violent crime. Many times, the trauma occurs during childhood or young adulthood, but there’s no age limit; older people can develop this type of disorder if a trauma occurred earlier in life or if one occurs during adulthood.

A teen with a dissociative disorder is usually dealing with some type of major trauma that occurred recently or in years past. It can also be caused by psychological stress; if this is the case, you might not be aware of a specific event or trauma that could be causing the problem. Therapy and counseling can help bring the cause to light in some cases.

Treatments for Teen Dissociative Disorders

Dissociative disorders can be managed, though there is no actual cure. The first part of treatment is psychotherapy. Your teen will meet with a counselor or a team of counselors who will use various types of therapies to help him or her cope with and manage the condition. Common types of therapy are cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT). In some cases, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is used as a type of therapy to help your teen cope with a traumatic event.

Medications can also be used, though they are often used cautiously with teenagers. Sometimes people with dissociative disorders also have other types of mental health conditions that need to be treated, and these might necessitate medications. Be sure to talk to your child’s mental health care team about the types of medications available, including the benefits and risks of each type. You will need to make sure your teen complies with the medication regimen prescribed, because stopping some medications suddenly can lead to suicidal ideation and physical withdrawal symptoms.

Other Teen Mental Health Conditions

Dissociative disorders can occur at the same time as other mental health conditions. Sometimes, both conditions are caused by the same traumatic event. Other times, the disorder itself can cause the secondary conditions. For example, a traumatic occurrence can cause post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in addition to the dissociative disorder. The dissociative disorder itself can cause depression and anxiety. Or, these conditions can be present before the dissociative disorder develops. Work carefully with a mental health professional to understand the complex relationship between the different types of conditions that your child might be dealing with.

If you suspect any type of dissociative disorder, it’s important to seek help quickly. It will not get better or go away on its own. Once you have gotten a referral to the appropriate mental health professional for your teen, consider getting some therapy for yourself, too. Supporting a child through treatment for one of these disorders can be stressful, overwhelming, and, in some cases, very scary. Family therapy can help you and your family cope with the stress, and it can also teach you how to best respond to dissociative episodes in your teen.