PTSD in Teens: How Can the Symptoms Present?
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As a parent of a teenager, you want them to feel safe, secure and able to navigate the world with confidence. However, sometimes teens can experience events that can be incredibly scary and overwhelming. This can lead to them developing a mental health condition called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD can present as quickly as a matter of days or as slowly as years after a traumatic event. 

A traumatic event can be any event that causes a person to feel intense fear, helplessness or horror. Some common traumas for teens that can trigger PTSD include but aren’t limited to the following:

  • Physical or sexual abuse
  • Witnessing violence, such as shootings or neighborhood violence
  • Military family-related stressors
  • Serious accidents that can cause major injuries or risk of death
  • Invasive medical procedures
  • Life-threatening illness diagnosis for themselves or a loved one
  • Sudden loss of a loved one
  • Bullying or emotional abuse
  • Witnessing violence happening to others
  • Neglect
  • Parent divorce

Over two-thirds of children will report at least one traumatic event by the time they are 16 years old. Not everyone who experiences trauma will go on to develop PTSD. According to the National Center for PTSD, in the U.S., an estimated almost 4% of teens aged 12 to 17 will experience PTSD at some point during their lives, with more girls affected than boys. Some factors that can influence who may develop PTSD after a traumatic event include:

  • Severity of the trauma
  • The teen’s individual coping skills
  • Strength of the support system
  • Preexisting mental health conditions, like anxiety or depression
  • History of previous trauma

Symptoms of PTSD in teens 

It’s important to remember that your teen’s experience with PTSD is as unique as they are. Everyone doesn’t experience all the same symptoms, and the symptoms can be similar to ones experienced by adults with PTSD. Symptoms that your teen may experience include:

  • Nightmares
  • Flashbacks, like sounds, images, smells or feelings
  • Avoidance of things that remind them of the event 
  • Irritability
  • Angry outbursts
  • Feeling nervous, jittery, or always on high alert and watchful
  • Low self-esteem 
  • Feelings of shame, guilt or isolation
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Emotional numbing
  • Depression
  • Anxiety and panic attacks
  • Impulsive, risky, self-destructive or aggressive behavior
  • Physical symptoms, like headaches, muscle tension or other body aches
  • Withdrawing from others
  • Reenacting the traumatic event 
  • Suicidal thoughts or behaviors

There is no single test to diagnose PTSD, but a doctor or qualified mental health professional can do a comprehensive evaluation based on the DSM-5 criteria for a PTSD diagnosis

What are the effects of PTSD on teens?

PTSD can have a significant impact on a teen’s life. Some potential side effects of PTSD can include, but aren’t limited to:

Treatment options for teens with PTSD

The two most effective types of treatments for PTSD in teens are:

  • Therapy 
  • Medication 

How PTSD impacts the four core processes in teens and how process-based therapy can help

PTSD in teens can disrupt the way they experience emotions, think, interact with others and behave. These emotions, thoughts, relationships and behaviors are the four core processes that drive mental health wellness and symptoms of conditions like those associated with PTSD. Here’s a closer look at how PTSD can affect these four core processes:

  • Emotions — Teens may experience sudden outbursts of anger, sadness or fear. Even a seemingly neutral situation can trigger overwhelming emotions related to their trauma. As a way to cope with the intensity, some teens may shut down emotionally. This can lead them to feel detached or unable to connect with their emotions.
  • Thoughts — After a traumatic event, negative thoughts and beliefs can take root in a teen’s mind. This can lead them to blame themselves for the trauma and develop a negative self-image. They may believe that they deserve the trauma that happened to them. They may also feel unsafe and powerless in the world and constantly worry or develop anxiety. 
  • Relationships — Trauma can create a barrier between teens and the people they care about. They may avoid friends, family or social situations to escape reminders of the trauma or due to the fear of being judged. They may also have a difficult time trusting others, which can make it challenging to build healthy relationships. 
  • Behaviors — Teens may engage in self-harm or risky behaviors like substance use as a way to attempt to numb the emotional pain. They may also avoid triggers or anything that may remind them of the trauma. This could be avoiding places, people or even activities they used to enjoy. 

At Lightfully Teen, we see your teen as the whole, unique, budding individual they are, and not just their PTSD diagnosis or symptoms. We have pioneered the use of process-based therapy (PBT). You can think of this treatment approach as a fully personalized framework that uses the most effective aspects of evidence-based treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), and cognitive processing therapy (CPT). It also uses compassion-based and somatic therapies to help target the drivers, or the four core processes, behind PTSD and its symptoms. Through PBT, our deeply compassionate experts can provide your teen with whole-person-centered care to address the root cause of their PTSD symptoms — their trauma. By processing their trauma in a safe and supportive environment, we can help your teen: 

  • Identify and understand triggers
  • Identify unhealthy coping strategies and develop healthy alternatives
  • Use these developed healthy coping skills to manage intense emotions or stressful situations 
  • Challenge negative thoughts and beliefs
  • Develop a more balanced and realistic self-image
  • Develop skills to express their needs and build trust in relationships

By addressing the underlying emotional and cognitive processes that can be disrupted by trauma, our licensed clinical therapists can help your teen overcome the challenges of PTSD and build a healthier, more fulfilling life.

Change is possible. When you’re ready to take the first step, contact us. We’ll take the next steps together, toward the fullest, brightest version of your teen.

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