If a young person has a particularly intense experience which harms or threatens their physical or emotional well-being, they may develop trauma. When adolescents suffer from trauma, this can have a major impact on their life. Not only can it impact on their daily life, but it can also affect their social skills. This, of course, can have serious consequences in many areas of their day to day existence.
There are a number of events which could cause teens to experience trauma.
- Maltreatment or physical abuse
- Sexual abuse
- Community, school or family violence
- The death of a close friend or family member
- Experience of domestic violence
- Chronic illness and medical trauma
- Being separated from a parent or caregiver
- An accident or fire
- Being involved in a natural disaster
- Terrorism or acts of war
- A traumatic loss
Just because someone experiences one or more of the above doesn’t necessarily mean that trauma will occur, but it does make it more likely.
What Sort Of Reactions May Teens Have After Experiencing An Event That’s Traumatic?
After experiencing an event that is traumatic, young people react in physical and psychological ways. It’s likely they’ll have an increased heart rate, they may start sweating and feeling agitated or experiencing “butterflies”. These physical reactions are normal but distressing. However, if those reactions continue long after the event is over, this is considered to be trauma and it can interfere with both their emotional and physical health.
Some of the reactions associated with trauma include:
- Ongoing and intense emotional reactions
- Depressive symptoms
- Difficulties in focusing and paying attention
- Behavioral changes
- Problems in school or college
- Problems with sleeping
- Refusing to eat or eating too much
- Aches and pains
Frequently, someone who has gone through something traumatic will also try to avoid any place, person or situation which makes them recall the event. Some will attempt to forget or block out the event however they may still have a severe reaction to anything which reminds them of it. In some circumstances, these chronic reactions lead to PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).
What Are Adversities And Reminders?
Any traumatic experience will trigger a host of changes in the sufferer’s life which may be difficult and challenging. They may involve moving to another location, leaving friends or family members behind, changing daily routines, living with an illness or disability (either of their own or of someone close to them) or having to deal with an ongoing court case or police investigations.
Whatever the nature of the experience, it will inevitably leave a number of reminders which can continue for many years into the future. These are associated with various aspects of the experiences, its aftermath, and circumstances. Anniversaries, situations, things, places, people, physical reactions, or even feelings can remind the sufferer of everything that occurred all over again.
Being able to identify the sufferer’s response to their trauma and the reminders that trigger their reactions is a key tool for those around them to understand why and how their behavior and function can fluctuate with time.
So, what are the warning signs to watch out for that indicate a young person may be struggling with trauma?
One early sign that trauma could be developing is grief. Of course, grief is a normal reaction to many traumatic events. However, it is still something that should be watched carefully. Everybody grieves differently and at their own pace. So, whether a young person has no initial reaction to an event or a very strong immediate one, that doesn’t really indicate how well they’re going to cope in the long run with loss. Even if they seem to be handling the situation well at first, that doesn’t mean they won’t have a bad reaction at a later time. It’s important to keep a close eye on a young person who has suffered a traumatic event for at least 6 months since it can take this long for trauma to kick in.
Dwelling On Safety Or Death
One commonly seen sign of trauma in young people is an increased fixation with safety or death. Some will become morbid or fascinated with death while others become obsessed with safety, both of themselves and of those around them. If they have experienced an accident or disaster such as a flood, fire or earthquake, they may find themselves thinking repeatedly about the possibility of the same thing happening again and what might happen.
Difficulty In Eating And Sleeping
Some signs of trauma in young people (and, indeed, in adults) are very similar to depression. Many of these teens struggle to sleep or, alternatively, struggle to get out of bed. Others will eat too much or find they have no appetite and just stop eating altogether.
Anger And Irritability
For some young people experiencing trauma, unexplained anger, irritability, and unexpected outbursts become all too common. Sufferers may also struggle to focus on school work, projects or even conversations, and may snap at friends or family members for no apparent reason.
Anxiety And Worry
In some cases of trauma, young people have symptoms which present in a similar way to anxiety disorders. They may worry excessively or begin to have obsessive thoughts and behaviors. They may also find it difficult to be on their own or separated from family members.
Some young people who have gone through a traumatic experience become excessively withdrawn. They stop socializing with friends and spend more time in their room or away from family members. Some teens with trauma have an increased need to be more independent and to do things for themselves.
Reverting To Childish Behavior Patterns
Some teens who have experienced trauma begin to revert to their childhood patterns of behavior. They may reject any responsibilities or suddenly go back to behaving in a rebellious or childish manner. They may become increasingly dependent on adults around them to meet their needs rather than seeking the independence which most young people crave at this stage of their lives.
Becoming Increasingly Self-Absorbed
After a traumatic event, it’s possible for a young person to become increasingly self-absorbed and selfish. One common sign of trauma is when a young person becomes more self-centered and only begins to focus on or care out the things which are important to them at the moment.
A Lack Of Interest
Another common sign of trauma is a lack of interest in things which the sufferer formerly enjoyed such as hobbies, socializing and life overall. They may begin to look at life with a very pessimistic outlook and start to be cynical, distrusting other people. This can cause friendships and relationships to sour and eventually be lost.
Refusing To Go To School Or College
If an event has been connected with college or school, for example in a case of violence in the school itself or after the loss of a classmate, one sign of trauma could be an avoidance of school. This is a very clear symptom of something being very wrong with the sufferer.
Do Males And Females Have Different Responses To Trauma?
It is interesting to note that trauma often manifests in different ways in males and females. While there is no definitive way in which either sex will react, usually males react with increased anger and irritation and their trauma usually shows itself at an earlier stage following the event itself. However, female sufferers often tend to have a delayed reaction and their symptoms may manifest more internally with increased anxiety and worry rather than dramatic outbursts. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule and individuals will react in various ways to a traumatic event.
How Can I Help A Young Person With Trauma?
If you suspect a young person in your life is suffering from trauma after going through a challenging experience, there are some strategies which you can try to help them. These tips include:
- Encouraging them to communicate about their feelings with no
- Encourage the young person to communicate without judging or advising them until they ask for your feedback.
- Show them that you really care for them and are genuinely interested and enjoy being with them.
- Negotiate changes in roles and responsibilities during recovery and be flexible. Don’t try to stick rigidly to the way things were before the event.
- Continue to give love, support, and trust, even if things are extremely difficult.
- Remember your teenager is the same person they were before the event, even if they seem different.
- If asked, gently let the young person know that they are having a ‘normal’ reaction to a frightening experience and that in time these very strong reactions will subside.
Will A Young Person Who Has Experienced Something Traumatic Always Develop Trauma?
Even when someone experiences an event that is highly traumatic, the good news is that they won’t always develop trauma. There are a number of factors which contribute to the symptoms. These include:
- How severe the event was, how badly was the young person in question affected by it and the way in which it affected them.
- The young person’s proximity to the event, whether they were physically in the place where it occurred, whether they saw the event take place or whether the young person was the victim themselves.
- The reactions of those around the young person, whether their reactions were taken seriously and whether those around them responded appropriately to their needs at the time of the event.
- Whether the young person has had any previous episodes of trauma. People who are exposed repeatedly to traumatic events have a greater chance of developing trauma in the long run.
- Community and family factors. If the young person has a strong community and family around them, they may have better resources to protect against the potential harm caused by a traumatic experience and its aftermath. Conversely, however, in cases where discrimination or racism has been involved in the traumatic event, the chances of trauma are much higher.
Does Every Young Person Who Shows Symptoms Of Trauma Need Help?
Not every young person who displays the symptoms and signs of trauma will have PTSD. However, as many as a quarter of all young people who have experienced traumatic events go on to show symptoms which need to be evaluated and treated.
Although it isn’t always necessary to get help straight away for a young person who is showing some of the above warning signs of trauma, if those symptoms continue to worsen over time or are very long lasting, it’s important to seek help for them. Trauma that remains untreated can affect a young person’s development and their ability to function properly both in school and at home. Untreated trauma in young people can have some very severe consequences for their future well-being.
What Are The Risks Of Untreated Trauma In Young People?
It has been proven that trauma during adolescence which goes untreated can result in increased risk-taking behaviors like promiscuity and unsafe sex, as well as a greater chance of alcohol and drug abuse. Studies carried out recently have even shown that trauma during adolescence could cause a greater risk of developing serious health problems during adulthood like strokes, cancer, diabetes and heart disease. It has also been argued that trauma is one of the top preventable causes of mental health disorders. It’s clear, therefore, that allowing trauma to go untreated for any length of time is something which should certainly be avoided for the young person’s long-term health and well-being, both physically and mentally.
Although it’s difficult to deal with a young person who is showing signs of trauma, it’s important to be aware that trauma in young people can be treated and there exist a number of very effective treatments which can help young people to cope with traumatic events that they have experienced. If you are concerned about (or are) a young person who appears to be showing the signs of trauma, it is wise to seek help, especially if those symptoms are severe and ongoing.