Teen Trauma: How Does it Affect Adolescents and Their Behavior?
To help and support your teenager deal with trauma, it’s important to understand how teens manage distress. Traumatic events during any stage of a person’s life can be overwhelming and cause high levels of distress in day-to-day life.
However, teenagers are often already at a fairly fragile age due to many factors that are already outside of their control. Hormones, emotions, and body changes can be difficult enough. When trauma is added, it is yet another dimension that is outside of their ability to manage. This is especially troubling for someone who is already struggling to understand and gain control.
Teenagers can also have strong reactions to local or national tragic events. They can also be impacted by a tragedy that affects someone within their social circle. Parents and other caregivers may find it difficult to discuss trauma with their teens as they typically prefer to lean on social groups for comfort and support. However, if a parent can recognize the effects of trauma on their teen they can encourage them to open up or even be willing to get professional help.
15 Common Symptoms of Trauma During Adolescence
You may notice your teen no longer talks at dinner or excuses themself early. They may even stop hanging out with their closest friends. Teens dealing with trauma will often internalize the issue because they are unsure how to deal.
When teens are dealing with trauma they have difficulty understanding how to express their emotions. This can then be expressed in bursts of sadness or rage as they struggle to understand how to navigate their feelings.
The teenage years are right before they start to make big decisions like where they’ll go to college and who they’ll build relationships with. If your teen has displayed little to no interest in the future it’s a troubling sign.
Teenage years are often spent with a preference for friends and other individuals that are engaged in the same activities. A teenager that is showing a preference for isolation may be troubled by difficult memories or feelings.
It’s not uncommon for teens to push the boundaries of the rules parents to impose. However, if they are engaging in risky activities or blatantly making dangerous decisions, parents should take note.
By a child’s teen years, they are typically used to how to manage when they oversleep for school or miss the bus. If your teen starts to overreact to such instances it could demonstrate they have bigger issues on their mind they aren’t dealing with.
If your teen is constantly feeling the need to discuss a traumatic event, likely, they are still trying to figure out how to process it. Professional support can help them work through this effectively.
Difficulty sleeping is not usually an issue for most teens, so if your teen has indicated that they can’t get to sleep or sleep through the night they could be having nightmares or have difficulty falling asleep due to traumatic memories.
Teens that show an abundance of concern over their sibling’s or parents’ whereabouts, or decisions may be trying to mitigate the chances a traumatic event will reoccur. This overabundance of caution can be exhausting and isn’t healthy.
The teenage years are when adolescents start to branch out and become more independent. But teens still crave some structure and familiarity. If your teen is demonstrating the need for way too much independence it could be because they feel a lack of support from the structure that’s currently in place.
It’s common for teens to be somewhat self-absorbed as they are navigating challenging years with peers. However, a teen that is only communicating their concern for themselves, especially at the expense of others may feel that they have no choice because no one else will care about them.
Teens that are troubled or demonstrate that they have nothing to look forward to may believe that trauma is likely to repeat or that life has nothing left to offer but more pain. These feelings can continue to manifest until they are dealt with.
When a teen is showing cognitive decline you may also see this reflected in their grades in school. Teens that are struggling with trauma often do not want to think in general regardless of what it is for.
Stress is an emotion that gets easier to handle the older you become. Teens are only beginning to deal with stress and many will find it difficult to eat when they’re overcome with distress from trauma. Consequently, some may feel that food is what makes them feel better.
Teens are typically looking for more independence and outlets to learn more about themselves outside of the home and what’s familiar. If your teen has quit their afterschool job, given up on sports, or simply demonstrates a strong need for your presence, it could be because they feel a loss of control due to trauma.
Trauma and Developing Brain
As children enter teenhood, their brains go through rapid changes. This is all in a preparation for teens to move into adulthood so they have a solid understanding of themselves and the world around them. It’s also so they can think quicker, more accurately, and with little distraction. As teens become adults they engage in more life transitions including more intimate relationships, responsibilities in careers, and other challenging decisions.
Part of the brain, specifically the amygdala and hippocampus are still in development which can make it difficult for teens to properly process emotions and experiences due to trauma. These parts of the brain are what control impulses, decisions, empathy, and problem-solving skills. When a teen experiences trauma, this part of the brain can be disrupted and lead to further behavioral issues as they try to make sense of their emotions.
Teens are also predisposed to lower moods and irritability as their brains are learning how to think, do, and feel many things at once. During adolescence, a coating grows on the neural highway of the brain called myelin. This coating helps speed up communication between different areas of the brain, but unfortunately, serotonin levels suffer to allow this growth to occur.
Different Ways Teens Can Experience Trauma
Adults and teens can experience trauma in several ways.
Some ways teens trauma can develop may include the following:
- Sexual abuse
- Physical abuse
- Parents’ divorce
- Natural disasters
- Witnessing a violent act
- Being exposed to extreme poverty or war-like experience
- Growing up with parents who experience addiction and other mental health issues
- Physical or emotional neglect from a loved one
- Death or separation from a loved one
Trauma can also be experienced directly or indirectly – teens may see their peers going through difficult times and absorb that stress and fear.
In a survey sample of adolescents aged 12 to 17, 8 percent reported a lifetime of being subjected to sexual assault, 17 percent reported physical assault, and 39 percent reported being a witness to violence.
It’s important to understand how trauma during adolescence affects their ability to grow into mature functioning adults. The impact of childhood trauma on adults can be far-reaching and cause mental health and behavioral health disorders if left untreated.
Adolescent Trauma That Leads to PTSD as an Adult
When trauma goes untreated or is not resolved early on in teen years, it can create long-term effects that carry into adulthood. If a teen’s social relationships have been affected by trauma, they may find difficulty building meaningful connections with others. When teen trauma leads to PTSD as an adult, they may experience intense flashbacks, nightmares, or intrusive thoughts related to the traumatic event. They may have difficulty controlling their emotions or feel a heightened state of distress.
Furthermore, teens may struggle with physical symptoms such as headaches and gastrointestinal issues due to unresolved trauma. Adults can also develop more serious chronic illnesses like diabetes and heart disease.
The Development of Co-Occurring Substance Abuse and PTSD
As well as PTSD can develop, untreated trauma can lead to issues such as anxiety or depression. Additionally, substance abuse, addiction, or behavioral problems can arise due to unresolved childhood trauma. This often occurs as adults look to self-treat their unresolved stress. This only leads to co-occurring mental health and substance abuse issues. Teens will also commonly use drugs or alcohol to self-soothe symptoms of trauma. The younger a person is when they misuse substances the more difficult it will be for them to overcome these behavioral dependences.
How Can I Help My Teen with Trauma?
If you suspect
your teen may be struggling with the effects of trauma, it is important to take immediate action. The most important thing you can do is create a safe and supportive environment for your teen. This means listening and validating their feelings without judgment. Encourage them to express themselves through art, writing, or physical activity to cope with their emotions healthily.
Other ways to help them cope can include:
- Continue to demonstrate consistent communication and that opportunity is always available.
- Let your teen know that their feelings are normal and make sure not to react negatively if your teen confides in you regarding behaviors or thoughts that could seem abnormal. You want to keep them calm and let them know you care.
- Make the effort to engage in fun activities with your teen that don’t require them to discuss their feelings and emotions.
- Develop a plan with your teen that allows them the opportunity to step away from some responsibilities so that they can work through difficult emotions.
When Should I Seek Professional Help for Teen Trauma?
You may also need to seek professional help for teen trauma. If your teen is engaging in substance abuse or experiencing any other troubling behavioral issues, it may be outside of your control to help them manage. This is especially true if your teen is expressing difficulting in basic communication with you, and shows no signs of trying to rectify the situation.
A mental health provider such as those at Luna Recovery Services can provide specialized treatment options tailored specifically for adolescents struggling with the long-term impact of trauma. Treatments may include individual or group therapy sessions, structured activities, or medication management if needed.
Through comprehensive trauma treatment and healing therapies, Luna Recovery Services can help your teen develop the skills necessary to cope with the mental, emotional and physical effects of trauma.
We have a multi-dimensional approach that looks to identify and address any underlying issues that may be causing negative behaviors. Our team works closely with teen patients and their families to form a plan for long-term healing, including communication strategies, improved self-esteem, life skill development, and substance reduction or abstinence when applicable.
At Luna Recovery Services we understand that teen trauma recovery is not always an easy process, but we are here to support your teen every step of the way. We believe in creating a safe space for adolescents to heal from their trauma so they can live more fulfilling lives in adulthood. Contact us today.
Dr. Allaire received his Bachelors of Science in Biology from the University of Houston, as Valedictorian of the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, and his Medical Doctorate from Baylor College of Medicine, where he served as Chief Resident. He is the medical monitor for the Physician Counseling Committee of the Harris County Medical Society and the Medical Director of Serenity House Detox. Dr. Allaire specializes in medically assisted detox cases, treating patients in recovery from addiction or other mental health disorders, the medical assessment and monitoring of patients with addictive disorders, medical care related to eating disorders and the medical treatment of patients with mental health conditions.