If you think about traumatic events and post-traumatic stress disorder, you might not consider teenagers in the equation. Unfortunately, many teens do experience trauma in their young lives. This trauma can have far-reaching effects. As the parent of a teenager, it’s important that you understand the types of traumatic events that can affect adolescents, how trauma changes teens, and how you can help if your teenager experiences a traumatic event.
Types of Traumatic Events
There are different types of traumatic events that can affect teens. Some might have affected your child when he or she was younger, but you might only be noticing the effects later, during the teen years. Others are common among teenagers. They include:
- Violence, either to the teen themselves or to someone in the vicinity. This could be a shooting, a serious fight, bullying, or something else.
- An accident. Teens can be involved in a car accident or they might experience or witness a fall or some other type of traumatic accident.
- Physical or sexual assault. Rape, molestation, physical abuse, and other types of assault can be a cause of trauma.
- Death of a loved one. If someone in the family or in the circle of friends dies, particularly if the person was young and healthy or it was otherwise unexpected, this can cause trauma.
- Divorce or another loss. A parental divorce or a close family member moving away or abandoning the family can cause trauma in some teens.
- Natural disasters. Being involved in an earthquake, a tornado, severe flooding, or some other natural disaster could be the case of a traumatic stress disorder.
- Serious illness or injury. Nearly dying or having a loved one come close to death through illness or injury can be very traumatic.
Reactions to Traumatic Events
If your teen has suffered from a traumatic event, he or she might not confide in you. In fact, from your standpoint, they might seem like they’re doing perfectly fine. Keep in mind that adolescents are vacillating between independence and dependence; you are no longer the person that they’re likely to go to first when something troubling happens. As your teen’s parent, you’ll need to be on the lookout for signs that your teen isn’t coping well.
Some teens will become depressed or anxious (or both). This type of reaction might be short-lived or it might be drawn out for a long time. It’s important to seek treatment for anxiety or depression surfacing after a traumatic event.
Other teens will turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as developing an eating disorder, using or abusing alcohol or drugs, or becoming promiscuous and having unsafe sex. Your teen might seem angrier than usual or become uncharacteristically violent. Sometimes teens who are outgoing will retreat and isolate themselves. Any major change in your teen following a trauma should be investigated.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Some teens will go on to develop post-traumatic stress disorder, often abbreviated to PTSD. This condition is most often associated with war veterans. It develops shortly or a while after a traumatic event. Symptoms include:
- Reliving the event (flashbacks)
- Intrusive thoughts and memories that your teen doesn’t want to think about
- Avoiding the topic; your teen might refuse to talk about it or even think about it
- Trouble sleeping
- A hard time focusing at school or in the course of daily life
- Mood swings
- Suicidal thoughts or ideation
PTSD can interfere with daily life, but it doesn’t have to. The symptoms might come and go at various times. Your teen might be fine most days but have a hard time with flashbacks and nightmares occasionally. Because the symptoms of PTSD can be troubling, it’s important to seek treatment if you suspect that your teen is suffering from the condition.
Treatments for PTSD
There are several effective treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder. For a teenager, many clinicians will begin with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or other types of “talk therapy.” These therapies can help your teen process what happened. Your teen will also learn ways of coping with negative thoughts and disturbing images.
Sometimes, medications are necessary. Antidepressants are often prescribed; your teen might get a prescription for Zoloft, Effexor, or some other antidepressant. It’s important that you discuss the pros and cons of medication for PTSD with your teen’s doctor. It’s also important that your teen take the medication as prescribed; if they have side effects and want to stop taking them, they cannot just stop cold turkey in most cases. Speak to a medical professional before making any changes to your teen’s medication.
A therapy called EMDR, or eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, is also effective against PTSD. This is a type of psychotherapy that has been proven to work in many cases. If you are interested in EMDR, be sure to talk to your teen’s mental health practitioner.
Helping Your Teen Process Trauma
The best thing you can to help your teen is to talk to him or her about what they are feeling. Encourage them to open up to you and let you know how they’re doing. It can be helpful to have discussions while in the car (with you driving); you don’t have to look at each other, and this can encourage your teen to be honest and feel less awkward.
Watch for signs that your teen is using unhealthy coping methods to deal with his or her trauma, and address those as they come up. Don’t hesitate to take your teen to a doctor or a counselor to help them overcome the problem. Finally, do whatever you can to keep your teen safe. When he or she is so vulnerable, they might need extra supervision and reassurance. Don’t forbid your teen from doing normal things that other teens are doing, but do take some extra precautions to minimize the chances of further trauma. By being available for your teen, you’ll be showing them that you care and that you are approachable about this and other issues that come up now and for years to come.