Teen boys talking together

Trauma & PTSD Treatment in Teens

Comforting a small child after a traumatic event is relatively easy. A teen who falls from his bike, for example, might need a few kisses from his mother and a quick bandage job, and he’ll be on his way in no time at all. There are some traumas, however, that can cause deeper damage and more intense emotional scarring and may lead to PTSD in teens.

What is Adolescent PTSD?

Teen post traumatic stress disorder can manifest when a young person has been exposed to a catastrophic, highly-stressful event, abuse, or injury. Some examples of these types of traumatic events could be experiencing a natural disaster, being in an automobile accident, being a vicitm or witness of a violent act or sexual abuse.

When addressing PTSD, adolescent victims often feel as if they are incapable of removing themselves from the traumatic event(s).  It may feel as though they are reliving the trauma over and over. This is why substance use is often linked with PTSD in teens, because these troubled youths are often trying to escape the traumatic memories that continue to replay in their minds. Young people afflicted with PTSD may suffer from nightmares or flashbacks of traumatic events which can feel intensely vivid and cause physical side effects such as night sweats, nervous shaking, and emotional agitation.

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Signs of PTSD in a Teenager

All teenagers are different, and signs and PTSD symptoms in teens will differ according to the individual and what type of trauma they have endured. Nevertheless, there are a few common signs that a young person may be experiencing post traumatic stress disorder.  Signs may include frequent panic attacks, confused thinking or difficulty making decisions, high levels of stress and anxiety, nervousness, or problems maintaining focus.  Teens with PTSD may also struggle socially, avoiding the company of others and/or isolating themselves.  Sleep is also often affected in which the teen may experience night terrors or nightmares which may lead to insomnia or unwillingness to sleep for fear of reliving the traumatic event in their dreams. In extreme instances, suicidal thoughts or even attempts may occur in teens with PTSD.

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Intense Suffering and PTSD in Teens

Some forms of trauma, in fact, can lead to emotional and behavioral PTSD symptoms in teens that manifest weeks or even months later, and no amount of parental soothing might seem to ease the pain. Teens with these trauma-related symptoms may have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and they might need the help of a treatment program. The PTSD cycle begins with a serious, upsetting event that’s difficult to live through and almost impossible to forget.

Good examples of traumatic episodes that could trigger PTSD include:

  • Sexual abuse
  • Physical abuse
  • Assault
  • Natural disasters
  • Death of a loved one
  • Automobile crashes
  • Acts of terrorism

Many teens can go through these episodes without developing symptoms of mental illness. For example, the National Center for PTSD reports that about 14 to 43 percent of teenage teens go through some kind of trauma, and yet only about 1 to 6 percent of teens develop PTSD. Teens who have strong social networks and easy access to support can simply talk about their feelings and process their pain, and after a few troubling days have passed, they might feel just fine once more. But there are some kinds of trauma that are difficult for teens to process. Teens who are subjected to long-term sexual abuse, for example, might find it difficult to make sense of their abuse, and they might not find it easy to disclose what’s being done to their bodies. Episodes that just don’t end are more likely to result in PTSD. Similarly, events that cause intense suffering both to the teen and to the teen’s family can be harder for young people to deal with.

In a study of teenage survivors of an earthquake in China, published in the Journal of Clinical Nursing, researchers found that 60 percent of the students interviewed months later were still thinking about the event on some level. These young people were injured or they saw loved ones injured or killed, and their homes and communities were leveled. It’s likely that they dealt with the aftermath daily, and had few people they could talk to who wasn’t similarly upset. Life was just hard for these young people, and the earthquake was to blame. Any time an event like this causes such intense suffering for a long period of time, teen PTSD is a likely outcome.

A young girl sitting on a chair in a field.

What Does PTSD Look Like in a Teenager?

Those who do develop PTSD find it hard to escape the memory of the event, and their thoughts seem to center on the unpredictability and danger of the world that surrounds them. Adolescent teens may discuss the event at length, repeating the details they remember or the feelings they experienced, or they may just mention the event in passing on a regular basis. On the flip side, some teens with PTSD never discuss the event at all, and they avoid the people, places and things that remind them of the pain they endured.

Teens with PTSD may also develop symptoms that seem to have little to do with memory. They might jump or startle easily, for example, or they may seem just angry and upset much of the time. They might act out in class, refusing to complete their homework assignments or do as they’re told. Some teens seem to regress to an earlier stage of development, and they might begin using a softer voice, wetting the bed or even sucking their thumbs for comfort.

In an effort to soothe their pain, teens might develop all sorts of destructive habits.

Some might focus on their weight, spending hours at the gym in order to build up muscle so they can fight off future attacks with ease. Others might delve into the use and abuse of alcohol or drugs, dampening the activity of the brain in order to allow them to sleep through the night without nightmares or get through the day without crying. In almost every case, substance use exacerbates PTSD conditions, and substance, alcohol or teen marijuana treatment may need to be obtained.

The Nemours Foundation reports that most symptoms of PTSD develop within the three months that follow a traumatic episode. It’s important to note, however, that PTSD symptoms sometimes don’t develop immediately. The day after an attack, the teen might seem bruised but fine, for example, but troubling behaviors might blossom months later.

Delayed Development and PTSD in Teens

Parents might find specific behaviors of teens with PTSD to be troubling. They may dislike the jumpiness and nightmares that come with the disorder, for example, or they may find it hard to handle a child that continually repeats the same disturbing story on a regular basis. The teen’s peers may also notice the changes, however, and the damage can be compounded when a teen’s behavior makes that child the target of abuse, shunning and teasing. Teens with PTSD who suck their thumbs or act out in class might be labeled as troublemakers by their teachers and their peers, and they might be less frequently invited to parties or social gatherings as a result. They might wear out their friends with endless discussions of death, or they may find it hard to deal with mundane activities during the school day, and they may raise the ire of officials in school if they skip class or otherwise misbehave.

A report produced for the UIC Great Cities Institute also suggests that children with PTSD could be missing out on an important life lesson. During adolescence, children are learning how to understand what’s happening in the environment, as well as what an appropriate response should be when things don’t happen as planned.

Teens with PTSD are shut down and emotionally closed off, believing that the world is much too dangerous to interact with, and they may not learn these lessons as a result. In the future, when they’re provided with a stressor, they might slide right back into isolation or PTSD. They just know of no other way to handle their feelings.

How To Deal With PTSD Episodes In Teens

A common question asked by caring parents is, “How do I deal with a PTSD episode in my teen?” This inquiry is understandable because a PTSD episode can often be explosive, frightening (for the teen and the parent) and potentially violent.  Here are a few ways to effectively help, cope and deal with a PTSD episode in a traumatized teen:

Pay Attention to Potential Triggers

It’s important to keenly observe PTSD in teens and pay attention to when or how triggers might cause eruptive behavior.  Parents can reduce or lessen a reactive episode by learning their child’s triggers and avoiding those situations.

Become Educated About Teen PTSD

It’s been said that forewarned is forearmed. In the case of PTSD, teens can manifest symptoms in a myriad of ways.  Therefore, parents are encouraged to learn as much as possible about PTSD – what it is, why it occurs, and how to apply this knowledge in daily life to help their teen (and themselves) recover.

Be Reassuring and as Patient as Possible

Parents can assuage PTSD symptoms in teens by assuring their child that they do not have to endure this condition alone.  Reinforce that you are there for support, and recruit trusted allies within your social or family circle who can offer additional support.  And while coping with teen PTSD can be admittedly frustrating, parents must attempt to remain as patient as possible. It’s important to realize that coping and living with PTSD is a long-term process, and emotional improvements do not happen overnight. Therefore, parents are encouraged to take time for themselves and for their teen to stay calm, patient and present for best results.

Seek Help for Your Teen

One of the most valuable and effective ways parents can help their child is to seek quality treatment for PTSD in teens.  An accredited program administered by licensed mental health professionals such as found at Muir Wood can make a revolutionary difference in the lives of teens suffering from PTSD.  Very often, parents simply do not have the knowledge, skill or wherewithal to successfully handle PTSD episodes in teens.  This is not a poor reflection upon parents.  It is merely an observation that professional mental healthcare workers are, in most cases, far more experienced and trained to help PTSD teens manage and cope with their symptoms.

Getting Help for Teens With PTSD

While PTSD can be treated, providing appropriate support in the immediate aftermath of a traumatic episode can prevent PTSD from developing. Parents can help and support treatment for PTSD in teens by:y:

  • Allowing the child to discuss the event at his own pace
  • Reassuring the child that his feelings are understandable and normal
  • Allowing the child to regress to an earlier stage, if the child feels that action is appropriate
  • Letting the child have control over some part of the day, so he feels less powerless

If the symptoms don’t abate or the child seems to be growing worse, professional help is best. In a structured program, therapists can provide treatments that allow the child to slowly become accustomed to the presence of the disturbing memories without feeling the need to react in a negative manner. Teen individual therapy might also teach the child how to soothe his distress through breathing exercises, meditation or physical activity. Some teens benefit from family therapy in which the whole group works on communication techniques.

It can be difficult to think about placing a beloved child in a therapy program, but it’s important to remember that PTSD rarely resolves without some kind of help. Even those children who seem improved in subsequent months remain at risk for future episodes of PTSD in response to trauma, if they don’t learn how to modify their reactions through therapy. By enrolling a child in a treatment program, parents might be allowing that child a reasonable opportunity for healing. It could be the best gift a parent can give.


How Common is PTSD in Teens?

According to studies from the National Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, roughly 14% – 43% of teenage boys and 15% – 43% of teenage girls experience at least one trauma during their adolescent years. The study further shows that out of these youths, 1% – 6% of teenage boys and 3% – 15% of teenage girls are likely to develop PTSD due to that traumatic event(s).

What Can Cause PTSD in Teens?

As mentioned, there are many causes that can prompt PTSD to develop in adolescents. While conditions and triggers differ, PTSD is directly linked to a traumatic event a teen has endured or witnessed. PTSD may also develop in youths who have experienced extreme neglect or abuse. Situations in which a teen experiences or witnesses violence, a sudden loss of a loved one, assault, natural disasters, combat, gang violence, arrests, or auto accident all have the potential to lead to PTSD in teens.

How is PTSD Treated in Teens?

Thankfully, there are many different types of treatment for PTSD in teens. The most common treatment is TF-CBT, which is trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy. This is a kind of talk therapy that mental health professionals use in order to encourage discussion and talk about the traumatic event. Talk therapies for PTSD teens may also include group therapy in which youths can openly and safely discuss their experiences with other teens in similar situations. Other PTSD teenager treatment might include experiential therapy, psychotherapy, and in rare cases, medically assisted therapy.

Treatment For PTSD In Teens At Muir Wood

If you’re looking for help for your adolescent teen, please call us or download our admissions packet. At Muir Wood, we specialize in assisting troubled teen teens, helping them to overcome their current problems and plan for a future of happiness. Please call us to find out more.

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Why Choose Muir Wood for PTSD Teenager Treatment

Teenagers who struggle with PTSD need to feel safe and supported. At Muir Wood, we provide that security nestled among the beauty of Sonoma, California. Our campuses serve as a sanctuary for PTSD teens, allowing them to heal, cope and manage their thoughts and emotions in a structured yet safe environment. Our dedicated and expert mental health professionals are as devoted to your teen’s mental health as you are. Our individualized and award-winning PTSD treatment programs for teens are, in most instances, the second chance teens need to build a bright future, and dispel the shadows of fear, anxiety, and trauma in their lives.

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