Teens Who Witness Violence Are Vulnerable to PTSD

Up until recently, it has been thought that those who are the victims of violence, meaning that they experience violence inflicted on themselves, are at risk for developing PTSD. For instance, if a teen has experienced a car accident, rape, or physical/sexual abuse, he or she may be vulnerable to developing PTSD symptoms, such as anxiety and fear. However, research is indicating that simply being a witness to violence can be just as traumatic. This is true of children and teens that have witnessed domestic violence between their parents, have been exposed to violence in the news, and who have witnessed violence in their urban communities.

A study at Boston Medical Center found that one in ten children and teens had observed a shooting or knifing by the age of six. Half of the violence reported occurred on the streets and half in the home. In Los Angeles, children and teens witness 10-20% of homicides. At least one third of American children and teens have witnessed domestic violence between their parents, and most have witnessed multiple occasions of violence.

Most children and teens that witness violence will experience symptoms of PTSD. This affects a teen’s ability to learn, focus, and concentrate in school. Children and teens that witness violence can be more aggressive and become violent themselves. The fear associated with experiencing violence thwarts a teen’s ability to explore the world and causes them to feel unsafe in following their curiosity.

Furthermore, children and teens that witness violence suffer from physiological effects including disruption to their normal cortisol production pattern, which can have an effect on physical health. During a traumatic event, the body produces increased blood sugar levels to provide extra energy for the muscles. There is an increase in cortisol that counters the pain and inflammation in the body, if there is any. Blood pressure rises. Blood is pumped away from the extremities of the body towards major muscles in order to provide them with extra strength. And there is an increased amount of cortisol to facilitate ignoring physical pain in the body, if there is any. The long-term effect is an impaired production of cortisol in every day life. Teens are hyper sensitive to stimuli, which is characteristic of PTSD.

The typical symptoms of someone who has experienced a traumatic event and who has not sufficiently healed from that life-threatening experience include anxiety, extreme emotional fluctuation, flashbacks, loneliness, anger, irritability, bad dreams, and frightening thoughts. An individual might also exhibit symptoms of avoidance, such as staying away from certain places to avoid reliving the traumatic experience or forgetting the experience entirely.

In addition to the symptoms just mentioned, a teen’s beliefs about life and the way the world is ordered can change instantly. A deep trust in the world prior to trauma can easily turn into distrust of other people, life circumstances, and even oneself. This can be especially true if trauma repeats itself, such as witnessing death in war or ongoing sexual abuse by a family member. Repeated trauma can cause a worsening of anxiety, feeling a constant high level of alert and paranoia.

The inability to manage emotions, a typical symptom of PTSD, can lead to dysfunctional coping mechanisms such as drug use, drinking, cutting, aggression, and other forms of risky behavior. It can be challenging to manage feelings when they seem frightening or overwhelming. They might be accompanied by fear, helplessness, and powerlessness. These emotions might also lead to shutting down.

Treating teens with PTSD typically includes therapy and medication. Therapy can provide teens with new coping mechanisms to manage the emotions, the invasive memories, and stress. Teen PTSD treatment can support a teen’s well-being and facilitate resolving and healing from a traumatic event.


Springer Science+Business Media. (2009, April 22). Witnessing Violence Affects Kids’ Health. ScienceDaily. Retrieved June 30, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/04/090421091739.htm

Uni Research. (2014, June 30). Early traumas and young people’s reactions to terror. ScienceDaily. Retrieved June 30, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/06/140630094529.htm