This article discusses trauma in adolescence related to abuse, unhealthy relationships, violence, bullying, and the effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD in teens and young adults. We will then share steps parents can take to help their son or daughter as well as professional treatment options.
This white paper is written for adolescents who have experienced a trauma, their parents or caregivers, counselors, and anyone seeking help for PTSD in teens and young adults.
Table of Contents
Find Lasting Recovery for Trauma in Teens and Young Adults
The adolescent years can be a very difficult time for teenagers, young adults, and their parents. These years are filled with high levels of stress due to the demands at school, changing friendships, developing interests, and self-identity. The stress and emotional drain that comes with adolescence are only compounded when a teen or young adult faces a traumatic event or experience.
A traumatic event is considered to be any event that causes physical, emotional, spiritual, or psychological harm to an individual, resulting in the teen feeling threatened or frightened.
Experiencing a traumatic event is often so overwhelming for a teen or young adult that it causes them to shut down completely. Watching their teen become unable to keep up with life’s daily demands is heartbreaking for any parent to see. Because most teens and young adults who experience trauma are emotionally unequipped to handle such trauma, parents must step up and provide the needed help.
With the proper supports in place, teens facing trauma can experience true healing and lasting peace. These teens and young adults can emerge stronger and even more resilient than before.
The Prevalence of Trauma in Today’s Teens and Young Adults
It is not uncommon for teens to face trauma during their adolescent years. Several recent studies show that PTSD in teens is becoming increasingly prevalent in the United States. The National Survey of Children’s Exposure reported that 18.7% of teenage girls have experienced a completed or attempted sexual assault in their lifetime. A second national study asked over 4000 teens aged 12-17 if they had ever experienced sexual or physical assault or if they had witnessed violence. The study found that 47% of these teens had experienced either sexual or physical assault or witnessed violence (Finkelhor, D., Turner, H., Ormond, R., & Hamby. S. Violence, abuse, and crime exposure in a national sample of children and youth.)
While many teens today may experience a traumatic incident, the situation and source of trauma is different for every individual. It’s important for parents to learn and examine the different causes, reactions, and treatment options so they can provide their teen with the absolute best help possible.
Sources of Trauma in Adolescence
Defining trauma in teens presents a very wide spectrum of causes and incidents at varying degrees. Every teen has different emotional capacities and will, therefore, respond to challenges and trauma differently. For example, some teens are extremely sensitive and become deeply upset when there is a local or national tragedy. These teens may also experience serious distress when a friend or family member faces trauma.
Other teens and young adults may experience trauma directly due to bullying, unhealthy social or romantic relationships, or changes in their family dynamic. Some more extreme examples of trauma in teens and young adults include situations of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse and the death of a loved one. When a teen or young adult experiences a serious traumatic incident that greatly affects their behavior and day-to-day functioning, that teen could be facing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD.
Common Causes of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
PTSD emerges when a normal response to stressful situations does not go away or becomes worse. Normal responses of traumatic events can include flashbacks, sleep problems, or increased anxiety. However, with PTSD, these symptoms become worse and do not dissipate over time. Common examples of experiences that could lead to PTSD in teens and young adults include:
- Sexual abuse or violence
- Physical abuse or neglect
- Natural disasters
- Plane or car accidents
- Witnessing violence
- Experiencing Violence
- Having a friend commit suicide
Again, in some cases where a teen is a more sensitive individual, even learning about one of the above events can trigger some degree of PTSD.
Regardless of the cause or circumstance, any adolescent trauma most often results in the teen becoming avoidant in an attempt to numb their emotions. These individuals may also display more aggressive, rebellious, or impulsive behavior. The degree of PTSD symptoms often depends on the type and intensity of the event experienced. A teen or young adult is also more prone to develop PTSD if they are female, have any pre-existing or co-occurring disorders, had previous exposure to trauma, or if they lack a proper support system (The National Center of PTSD.) In the sections below, we will provide more insight into common risk factors and warning signs that your teen is facing trauma and could be suffering from PTSD.
Common Reactions After a Traumatic Event
Everyone reacts differently to trauma. Some teens and young adults are more resilient while others are more sensitive. Therefore, the spectrum of reactions is rather large and can include anything from anxiety and major depression to withdrawal or anger and hostility. Some young adults and teens with PTSD may shut-down emotionally and numb themselves while others may respond with self-destructive behavior.
In addition, The Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry reported a number of mental health disorders can come as a result of trauma including major depression, substance use disorder, anxiety disorders, and conduct disorder such as oppositional defiant disorder.
Other trauma reactions include difficulties in maintaining healthy interpersonal relationships or poor academic performance. This is often due to a lack of motivation caused by depression or because they are choosing to act out. While the above behaviors are common trauma reactions of teens and young adults, there are many additional warning signs that could indicate your child has developed PTSD.
20 PTSD Symptoms & Signs Your Teen or Young Adult Has Experienced Trauma
Regardless of the severity of a teen’s reaction, parents must be sensitive to the high level of stress their teen is facing and respond accordingly. If you think your teen could be facing trauma, here are 20 common signs of teens struggling with PTSD.
- Change in sleeping habits
- Socially withdrawn from friends and family
- Overreacts about small things
- Emotional numbness
- Poor academic performance
- Sudden change in behavior
- Loss of interest in friends and hobbies
- Detached from daily routines and activities
- Difficulties with concentration and focusing
- Displays signs of constant worrying
- Becomes rebellious
- Substance abuse
- Changes in eating habits
- Isolates him or herself
- Overly anxious
- Displays angry or aggressive behaviors
- Fatigue or exhaustion
- Panic attacks
- Constant fear or worrying
- Nausea, frequent headaches, or vomiting
Change in your teen’s or young adult’s behavior could indicate that your son or daughter is struggling and needs additional support. The best place to start this process is in the home.
Tips for Parents of Teens and Young Adults Facing Trauma
Studies have shown that proper support from parents can help lower levels of PTSD in teens. However, many young adult children and teens do not turn to their parents in times of trauma which makes it absolutely essential for parents to be aware of changes in their child’s behavior, recognize the signs of PTSD, and take the first step towards recovery. There are many things parents can do to help their son or daughter suffering from PTSD including encouraging open communication and by being patient with your teen.
1. Communicate with Your Teen or Young Adult
Remember, your teen or young adult may be so upset by the event that they are emotionally unequipped to talk and process the event out loud. They may feel embarrassed, ashamed, or guilty about the event. Other teens feel they need to be “strong” for their parents or do not even want to acknowledge the event by talking about it. Therefore, it’s important for parents to come to their teen with an empathetic and loving attitude. Let your teen know that you love them unconditionally and that their emotions are valid. Many teens do not come to their parents with their problems because they do not want to be lectured or told what to do. In these types of sensitive situations, approach them with a loving heart and listening ear.
2. Be Flexible in Your Expectations for Your Child
During times of trauma, it’s important that you do not expect your teen or young adult to perform and behave to the capacity they have before. Parents must be flexible when it comes to their expectations and also in adapting their daily responsibilities. Parents should not enable their teen or young adult by alleviating all of their responsibilities but should find a reasonable balance that respects the emotions they are facing. If your teen or young adult is struggling to complete tasks and assignments, validate their emotions and let them know it is completely normal and healthy for them to feel an emotional drain after an upsetting or frightening event. When you sense your daughter or son feels exhausted, encourage them to rest. It may also be helpful to inform your child’s school and teachers of the event so they are aware of what happened and the changes in your son or daughter’s behavior.
3. Be Patient with Your Son or Daughter Facing Trauma
It’s key for parents to be patient with the many emotions a teen faces while in a state of trauma. As a result, your teen or young adult may become very withdrawn, tired, and may come across as careless, lazy, or difficult. It is also common for adolescents in crisis to become rebellious as a way to take control of their lives and let out their strong emotions. They may become so angry about what happened to them that they blame you or their friends for the event. While their behavior may seem irrational or unhealthy, it’s important for parents to be patient and try to understand this is their way of coping. The more a parent tries to controls their teen or young adult, the worse their child may respond to the trauma and the more unsafe they may feel. Try to understand they are in the midst of a healing process.
4. Be Proactive and Direct
The worst thing a parent can do for teens and young adults with PTSD is to ignore or avoid the traumatic event. Whether the trauma is big or small, parents should create a safe place for their son or daughter to talk about and process any upsetting event. Parents should not be afraid to even bring up trauma and events start the discussion. Doing so will communicate to your teen or young adult that these topics are safe to talk about.
When parents have laid all of these supports and put these strategies in place and their teen or young adult still continues to show serious symptoms of PTSD, it may be time for parents to be proactive and seek professional help.
PTSD in Teens and Young Adults: When to Seek Professional Help
Sometimes the aftermath of a traumatic event or experience becomes too much for a parent to handle. The following 5 signs indicate it is time to seek help from mental health professionals:
- Your son or daughter’s behavior is reckless and harmful to themselves or others
- They’re struggling from severe depression or anxiety
- They start abusing drugs or alcohol
- They do not communicate with you at all about their life
- They don’t show any signs of healing or recovery
These signs and behaviors cannot be ignored. Do not let a traumatic event affect your child’s life and long-term happiness. Getting the proper treatment for your teen today sets them up for a better tomorrow.
Wilderness Therapy for PTSD
A credible wilderness adventure therapy program utilizes a research-based model for treating PTSD that encourages outcomes of increased self-confidence, healthy relationships, identity development, and improved coping skills. A credible wilderness therapy program, such as Aspiro Adventure, gives traumatized teens and young adults a safe and novel environment to heal. Such programs also provide these emerging adults with a loving and caring therapeutic staff, a variety of adventure activities, and a research-backed approach that promotes lasting change.
Wilderness Therapy Provides a Safe and Novel Environment for Teens & Young Adults to Heal
A credible wilderness therapy program provides people with PTSD with a safe and controlled environment that promotes growth and healing. This novel environment takes a teen away from the distractions and complications of adolescent life and allows the teen to reset and recognize their own strength. If a teen or young adult rebels after a traumatic incident, a new and novel setting is especially helpful in encouraging a teen to leave unhealthy patterns behind and develop new behaviors. Additionally, wilderness therapy programs utilize the healing effect of the outdoors to promote recovery and growth.
Wilderness Therapy Builds Confidence in Teens Through Adventure Activities
The adventure activities in a wilderness therapy program are extremely effective when helping teens and young adults with traumatic stress. These adventure activities teach teens that they can overcome hard things through hands-on experience. When a teen is faced with a challenge that is difficult at the start, such as hiking or rock-climbing, they build confidence in their abilities once they complete the task. Overcoming such physical boundaries not only contributes to their physical health but also teaches them they can surmount difficult odds. In turn, their self-esteem and confidence in their own abilities to overcome challenges is greatly improved.
Wilderness Therapy Provides Teens Facing Trauma with Individualized Care
As teens and young adults complete various activities, credible wilderness therapy programs will have trained and experienced therapists on staff who give them verbal encouragement and validation along the way. These program facilitators are always there to guide the healing process as these teens and young adults talk about their traumatic experiences. This process helps teens and young adults with PTSD internalize what they have learned.
A credible wilderness therapy program will also combine both group and individual therapy to provide students with a variety of settings to talk about what they learned and to generalize their skills. The clinical team and field staff of a credible wilderness therapy program will always meet the student where they are and provide them with a personalized treatment and therapy plan.
Wilderness Therapy Focuses on Lasting Recovery for Teens Facing Trauma
A credible wilderness therapy program will focus on creating lasting peace for teens and young adults recovering from trauma. By combining traditional therapy methods like Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR) and Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT) with adventure activities, wilderness therapy focuses on building teens’ strengths and building their positive attributes. Aspiro Adventure’s researched-backed approach is based on Martin Seligman’s work in the field of positive psychology that is based on doing what makes people happy and healthy, as opposed to what makes them anxious or depressed. Aspiro focuses on skill-building, personal strengths, and self-efficacy to promote long-term outcomes rather than just talking out and processing the traumatic event.
No matter what kind of PTSD treatment program you select for your traumatized child, doing your research is vital in selecting the best treatment center for your son or daughter. A reputable treatment program will help provide resources, client testimonials, and research. Whether you choose a more traditional form of therapy or an individualized form of therapy like wilderness therapy, it’s important you are making an informed decision.
A traumatic event can cause a teen or young adult to experience extreme amounts of emotional, physical, and psychological stress. Teens and young adults who have experienced trauma may struggle to open up as they process and come to terms with the event. They may worry about how and why the event happened, their involvement in the event, and how it changed them. Parents of teens and young adults facing trauma can help by being patient and understanding with their son or daughter.
While there are many steps parents can take to help their teen or young adult heal from trauma, some circumstances require more intensive treatment for PTSD. A credible wilderness adventure therapy program, such as Aspiro Adventure, offers teens an individualized and evidence-based treatment plan in a safe environment. With the proper support and care, teens facing trauma can heal and develop greater confidence in themselves and in the future.
- PTSD and Anxiety
- Help Your Child Manage Traumatic Events
- Teenage Trauma Adolescent America and post-traumatic stress—why is it so common?
- National Center for PTSD
- The Psychological Trauma in Children and Adolescents
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Administration on Children, Youth and Families, Children’s Bureau. (2012). Child Maltreatment 2011
- Finkelhor, D., Turner, H., Ormond, R., & Hamby. S. (2009). Violence, abuse, and crime exposure in a national sample of children and youth. Pediatrics, 124, 1411-1423.
- Lewis, Cara C., et al. “Impact of childhood trauma on treatment outcome in the Treatment for Adolescents with Depression Study (TADS).” Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry 49.2 (2010): 132-140.
- Hamblen, Jessica, and Erin Barnett. “PTSD in children and adolescents.” National Center for PTSD, (2006).
- Foa, E., Keane, T., Friedman, M., & Cohen, J. (Eds.) (2009). Effective treatments for PTSD: Practice Guidelines from the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies. New York: Guildford Press
About Aspiro Adventure Therapy
Aspiro Wilderness Adventure Therapy program was uniquely crafted to assist students and their families in creating lasting, life-long emotional changes through compassionate, intentional, research-backed, and safe outdoor adventure therapy programs. The professionals at Aspiro Adventure understand individuals don’t come with instructions, and every student is unique, capable, and amazing in their own right.
Aspiro Adventure focuses on helping adolescents, young adults, and their families through difficulties that occur when various behavioral, cognitive, or developmental issues are present. Research shows that engaging individuals on a personal level with strategic and intentional activities will aid in developing the tools and skills necessary to engage life in a healthy and positive way.