Dissociation is often the psychological response to a traumatic event. Although not all traumatic events cause dissociation, trauma is frequently the main cause of dissociation for teens and adults alike. However, children and teens are more susceptible to trauma because their brains are still in development and they don’t yet have the psychological resiliency that adults do. Teens are already at a crossroads between childhood and adulthood, and susceptible to emotional upheaval, confusion, and turmoil. Their emotional and psychological foundations are already shaky, which makes them vulnerable to dissociation if trauma occurs.
An experience that is considered traumatic is one that threatens the injury, death, or physical integrity, and is usually accompanied by terror and helplessness. A traumatic event could be the death of a friend or family member, sexual or physical abuse, an automobile accident, domestic violence, school violence, experiences of war, the effects of natural disasters, and acts of terrorism. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), more than 2/3 of children report experiencing trauma before the age of 16. As a result of experiencing such an intense ordeal, along with feeling powerless to do anything about it, psychological symptoms often result, one of which is dissociation.
Dissociation is a break in conscious awareness, memory, a sense of identity or a combination of these. Dissociative Disorders is a group of disorders listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), that include the psychological symptom of dissociation.
Symptoms associated with dissociation include:
- Feeling numb, detached, or emotionally unresponsive
- Amnesia of parts or all of the traumatic event
- De-realization, a symptom in which the environment seems strange or unreal
- De-personalization, a symptom in which thoughts and feelings do not seem real
- Flashbacks or recurring images of the trauma
- Feelings of reliving the traumatic event
- Feeling high levels of stress when an object or person reminds you of the event
- Avoiding people, objects, and places that stimulate reliving the trauma
- Trouble sleeping
- Chronic tension
- Easily startled
- Difficulty concentrating
- Inability to sit still
As you can imagine, these symptoms can get in the way of your child functioning well in school, at home or work, or in any extracurricular activities. You might see a drop in grades, unhealthy family interactions, or a loss of interest in social activities. Furthermore, if symptoms of trauma are not tended to quickly enough, they could exacerbate and have a dysfunctional and enduring impact. If this were the case, a teen would likely develop symptoms that characterize Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. When dissociation and other trauma-related symptoms last longer than a month and become chronic and ongoing, PTSD is the psychological illness that results.
Depending on the severity and the way that a teen experiences dissociation, the following are a list of potential dissociative disorders listed in the most recent edition of the DSM.
- Dissociative Amnesia
- Depersonalization/Derealization Disorder
- Dissociative Identity Disorder (formerly known as Multiple Personality Disorder or MPD)
If your teen demonstrates symptoms of dissociation, it is important to contact a mental health professional. A therapist or psychologist will be able to provide treatment methods that have been traditionally used to treat dissociation, such as psychotherapy and medication. Because dissociative disorders are often the result of trauma, they typically co-occur with depression and anxiety. For this reason, anti-anxiety and anti-depressants are used for treatment. Additionally, psychotherapy includes a safe exploration of the trauma in order to bring to light and heal the intense, trauma-related emotions.
With the right treatment, adolescents can find relief of their symptoms and return to their normal daily functioning.