Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is more common among teenagers than people realize.
This article will focus on PTSD in teenagers, its triggers, symptoms, long-term effects, treatment options, and what parents and caregivers can do to help.
How Big Is This Problem?
Some research suggests that PTSD is more common in teenagers than adults. For example, a study that measured the mental health symptoms of 447 teenagers reported that 28.5% were experiencing moderate to high levels of PTSD.
It is estimated that as many as 5% of adolescents aged 13 to 18 experience PTSD. Additionally, girls are more likely to experience PTSD than boys, with the prevalence being about 8% for girls and 2.3% for boys.
How Does Experiencing or Witnessing Trauma Cause PTSD?
PTSD develops when a teenager experiences or witnesses a traumatic event. This event can be a one-time occurrence, or it can be a repeated experience.
Teenagers can also experience vicarious or secondary trauma caused by indirect exposure to traumatic events through the media or other people.
An example of vicarious trauma is how PTSD rates in teenagers rose during the pandemic. A study found that close to one in every three teens has experienced PTSD symptoms due to COVID-19.
However, it’s important to note that not everyone who experiences a traumatic event will develop PTSD. Factors such as the severity of the trauma, the response of the teenager’s parent/guardian to the trauma, and how close the teen is to the trauma may affect the severity of PTSD symptoms.
Some examples of traumatic events that may cause PTSD in teenagers are:
- Experiencing emotional, physical, or sexual abuse
- Experiencing emotional or physical neglect
- Experiencing or witnessing domestic violence or abuse
- Experiencing or witnessing a violent crime like an assault or shooting
- Experiencing kidnapping or trafficking
- Experiencing natural disasters like earthquakes, floods, or other disasters like fires
- Experiencing or witnessing a serious accident like a car crash
- Experiencing or witnessing a suicide by someone close
- Living in a war zone or somewhere with community violence
- Experiencing divorce, abandonment, or the loss of someone close
- Experiencing a life-threatening illness or situation
- Witnessing someone close battle a life-threatening illness
- Witnessing a death
Teen PTSD Triggers
A PTSD trigger is a stimulus or situation that sets off one’s memories of the original traumatic event. These triggers somehow remind the individual of the trauma they experienced.
Triggers can be straightforward, like reading about the trauma in the news or being asked about the trauma. Or triggers can be subtle, like when the individual ate something right before the traumatic incident and is reminded of the trauma whenever they eat that same thing again afterward.
Triggers can also be external or internal.
External triggers are typically sensory stimuli that might remind the individual of the trauma they face. Some examples of external PTSD triggers in teenagers are:
- Anniversary of the event
- Seeing or hearing from people associated with the event, especially if the teen rarely sees them or hasn’t been able to heal with them
- Seeing objects associated with the event
- Sensory triggers like smells, sights, and sounds that are associated with the event
- Being in a situation that reminds the teen of the event
- Being in the place where the event happened
- News reports or social media posts about the event or similar events
Internal PTSD triggers are what the individual feels on the inside that might somehow bring back the memory of the trauma. Some examples of internal PTSD triggers in teens are:
- Familiar emotions associated with the event
- Intruding thoughts about the event that may suddenly appear
- Physical sensations similar to the ones felt during the event
Triggers develop when the brain associates specific details with the trauma. And when the individual encounters one or more of these triggers, their brain switches into fight-or-flight mode.
When the switch goes on, emotions, sensations, and thoughts related to the traumatic event rush back, creating a flashback. The individual’s body reacts as if they are in danger and sometimes as if it was happening all over again. And this occurs even if there is no actual threat.
What Are The Symptoms of PTSD in Teens?
Since teenagers are at a transitional stage in their lives, their symptoms of PTSD can range from a child to an adult. However, symptoms of PTSD in teens are typically more similar to adults than in children.
One of the main differences between PTSD symptoms in adolescents and adults and children is that adolescents may be more likely to act out aggressively or impulsively.
Teens with PTSD may often engage in risky and reckless behaviours such as unsafe sex, reckless driving, substance and alcohol abuse, delinquent behaviour, self-harm, and smoking.
Other symptoms of PTSD in teens are:
- Often remembering or re-experiencing the event such as flashbacks
- Easily triggered by things associated with the event
- Avoidance of memories or anything related to or reminding them of the event
- Increased anger, irritability, and outbursts
- Memory issues, especially those associated with the event
- Poor academic performance
- Difficulty concentrating or paying attention
- Difficulty with abstract thinking
- Difficulty forming relationships with peers
- Loss of interest in things they used to enjoy
- Social withdrawal or isolation
- Sleep problems
- Unexplainable pain such as headaches and stomachaches
- Hyper vigilance
- Feelings of guilt and shame
- Constant worry or anxiety
How Does PTSD Affect Teenagers Into Adulthood?
When left unresolved or untreated, many symptoms of PTSD in teens can contribute to long-term effects that continue to affect them in adulthood and possibly the rest of their lives.
While PTSD symptoms may be particularly high in the period following a traumatic event and may slow down after that, teens may still experience symptoms for years if their PTSD is left untreated.
The Long-Term Effects of PTSD in Teens
Over time, the stress of the trauma can impact every aspect of an adolescent’s life.
Teenagers with PTSD struggle a lot dealing with the symptoms. Since they are still developing in various ways, the trauma they experience can affect them harder than adults. It can significantly impact their daily functioning and ability to form meaningful relationships.
Anxiety & Panic Attacks
PTSD is a type of anxiety disorder, so it’s unsurprising for anxiety and related symptoms to occur after a traumatic event.
The teenager’s already heightened fight-or-flight response due to the trauma can make them more prone to anxiety and panic attacks. In addition, triggers reminding them of the trauma can induce these anxiety symptoms.
Depression & Emotional Numbness
Mood disorders such as depression are common among teens with PTSD.
Experiencing a major depressive episode is common after a traumatic event. However, even if a depressive episode doesn’t occur, teens with PTSD may frequently feel emotionally numb.
Trauma often causes long-term sleeping problems such as insomnia, nightmares, waking up throughout the night, or trouble falling back asleep after waking.
While sleeping problems are often a symptom associated with PTSD, the problems persist throughout one’s life as the trauma continues unresolved.
Negative Outlook on Self & World
Younger people with PTSD tend to view themselves and the world negatively.
Teenagers are still developing and growing. They are also at a phase in their life where they’re trying to figure out who they are and what they want to do. So when something traumatic happens, it can disrupt that whole process and stunt their development.
Teens who have PTSD tend to struggle with low self-esteem, a lack of confidence, and a negative self-perception. In addition, they often struggle with feelings of guilt and shame. They may even believe that the traumatic experience was their fault or that they somehow caused it.
The trauma may also make them think that the world is dangerous and that they are defenceless against it. And this mindset can lead to avoidance and a self-sabotaging attitude.
Avoidance is a common symptom of PTSD in teens. However, this symptom can continue into adulthood if PTSD is left unresolved.
The victim often adapts avoidance as a coping mechanism to deal with the trauma. But even after the traumatic event has ended, avoidance may still be used to deal with daily struggles.
Trouble Facing Challenges
Traumatized teenagers may have a lot of trouble facing challenges. Due to the fear, they may resist challenges or anything complex, even if avoiding or resisting it may require more energy and effort than confronting it.
As mentioned before, they may engage in avoidance whenever they encounter difficulty. On top of that, their low sense of self-worth and pessimistic view of the world will make them feel like it’ll all fail anyway, so there’s no point in trying.
Many teenagers who have experienced trauma have trouble identifying, managing, and appropriately expressing their emotions. In other words, they also have difficulty coping with stress.
Because of their trauma, a stressor that may otherwise be manageable for someone else may trigger a trauma response instead.
Teens with PTSD may also tend to suppress their anger or other uncomfortable emotions, believing they don’t deserve to or shouldn’t feel that way. As a result, sudden emotional outbursts may often occur.
Many adolescents with PTSD tend to have difficulty forming and maintaining relationships.
Even as adults, they may feel ashamed, alienated, stigmatized, or different from other people. Because of that, they may tend to isolate themselves from social relationships.
Their trauma might have also caused them to have trouble opening up, getting comfortable, trusting others, or being themselves. And being unable to connect with others may reinforce their feelings of guilt, shame, and negativity towards themselves.
Hypervigilance, also known as hyperarousal, means being extremely alert and easily startled. It’s also seen as an oversensitivity to stressors or triggers.
When trauma happens to someone, their brain goes into fight-or-flight mode. And when the trauma remains unresolved, their brain stays in that mode.
Anything associated with the event or that reminds the individual of the event can trigger that fight-or-flight mode, even when the person isn’t in danger.
Psychological & Physiological Illnesses
Younger people, such as children and teens who have experienced trauma, are more prone to certain illnesses in later life.
On top of psychological disorders such as anxiety and depression, teens with PTSD may also develop physical conditions like pain disorder, autoimmune diseases, and musculoskeletal diseases in adulthood.
How Does Therapy Help?
Therapy provides a safe space for teens to share their experiences, feelings, and thoughts on what happened. In addition, a therapist can help them see how their trauma affected their thoughts, feelings, and actions.
With therapy, teens can learn healthy coping skills to help them deal with the aftermath of the trauma. For example, they can learn to cope with uncomfortable emotions and triggers. They can also learn to let go of the guilt and shame they might feel over the event.
For instance, cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) is commonly used to treat trauma. It helps teens change their thinking and behavioural patterns into something healthier.
Another common therapy type, eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), engages the five senses to help alter the way the brain processes and stores trauma.
How Can You Help as a Parent or Guardian?
Teenagers who have parental support are more likely better manage their PTSD and symptoms than teens who don’t have that support.
If you are a parent or guardian of a teenager who has just experienced something stressful, traumatic, or difficult, you may feel anxious, upset, and scared about how to help your child. So it makes sense that you want to do whatever you can to help them move forward from their trauma so they can continue growing and thriving.
To help your teen, it’s vital that you first recognize the signs of PTSD.
Did a stressful or possibly traumatic event happen to your child? How are they doing after the event? Do you notice any of the symptoms listed above? Are there any changes in their academic performance or social relationships? How are they feeling?
If it seems like your teenager may be experiencing PTSD symptoms, try to understand what they’re going through and gauge how you can approach them.
Try not to come on too strong or overwhelm them with questions. Try not to pressure or rush them to open up about what they experienced or seek therapy if they’re not ready yet. Doing this may cause them to distance themselves further and withdraw themselves.
Instead, let them know that you are available whenever they need you. Explain to them that therapy can be helpful and that you can go with them whenever they are ready. And most important of all, be there for them when they reach out and listen to them. Give them what they need when they ask and be validating, supportive, and reassuring.
Once your child is ready to seek professional help, be by them every step of the way. Go with them to their meetings, even if you’re just in the waiting room.
You’ll sometimes feel upset, frustrated, and powerless on how to take away your child’s pain and troubles. But realize that your support and care already make a difference.