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Teens & Trauma

As our world navigates pandemic, social unrest, mass shootings, devastating hurricanes and other tragedies, 24-hour news cycles and social media have heightened our exposure to traumatic events in modern life. This reality leaves many parents to wonder: How do traumatic experiences—direct or indirect—affect my child’s emotional wellbeing?

Adolescents may be uniquely impacted by trauma because their brains are still in the process of growing
and maturing. However, the brain’s ability to form new associations—called neuroplasticity—suggests that the brain can recover from traumatic experiences over time.  As providers, we know that parents play a crucial role in trauma recovery by being available to their child and being responsive to their needs during difficult times. These efforts can make a big difference in their ability to manage challenging circumstances now and later in their lives. In fact, the National Center for PTSD reports that parental support is predictive of lower levels of PTSD in children. 

It may be helpful to utilize therapy as a place to talk through reactions to trauma and learn skills to strengthen coping. Together, providers and loved ones may recognize the signs of posttraumatic stress disorder, a more severe reaction to experiencing a traumatic event. Symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder include: intrusive, unwanted images, flashbacks or nightmares related to the event; avoidance of stimuli associated with the event; changes in thoughts and mood; and greater reactivity following the event. It is estimated that more than half of all people will live through a trauma in their lifetime. Thankfully, help is available to support children, adolescents and families impacted by trauma.

THERE ARE A NUMBER OF THINGS THAT PROVIDERS CAN RECOMMEND PARENTS DO TO PROMOTE A SENSE OF SAFETY, STABILITY, CALM, CONTROL AND SUPPORT SHOULD THEIR TEEN BE IMPACTED BY A TRAUMA:

  • Respond quickly with sensitivity and thoughtfulness. Let your child know that you are available to them whether they want to talk or not. Don’t push them to talk, but make it clear that you are there to support them and that you can handle doing so.
  • Acknowledge and talk about experiences. Validate feelings to help teens manage their emotions. Let them know that their grief is expected given the circumstances and that expressing grief to others is normal and healthy.
  • Emphasize stability through normalized routines, such as day-to-day activities at home and at school and spending time with friends.
  • Connect to friends, loved ones and the larger community to reduce or prevent feelings of isolation and loneliness.
  • Help build teen empowerment and a sense of control or personal agency, such as through choices. Help your teen identify where they do have choices about their lives, such as making decisions about how to take care of themselves with exercise, nutrition, activities/hobbies, supportive relationships, etc.
  • Help your teen find ways to get involved in causes that matter to them, such as walking in marches, writing letters to members of Congress, volunteering, voting in elections or anything else that contributes to their sense of making a difference in their community.
  • Encourage your teen to engage in grounding activities that are soothing for them and encourage a sense of being in the present moment. Some ideas might include yoga, meditation, dance, art, reading, talking a walk, enjoying nature and swimming. Focusing on feeling safe and calm in the present is critical for adolescents suffering from the impact of trauma.
  • Talk with your child’s school to make sure that you and your children are aware of the emergency safety protocols, which can also help with a sense of safety.
  • Help your child engage in therapy as a place to talk through trauma and learn skills to strengthen coping.