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.
Some forms of trauma, in fact, can lead to emotional and behavioral symptoms 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
- 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 weren’t similarly upset. Life was just hard for these young people, and the earthquake was to blame. Anytime an event like this causes such intense suffering for a long period of time, PTSD is a likely outcome.
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.
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.
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.
While PTSD can be treated, providing appropriate support in the immediate aftermath of a traumatic episode can prevent PTSD from developing. Parents can help by:
- 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. 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.
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.