Often, people unfamiliar with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) associate the condition with adults, and specifically with military veterans. And while it isn’t uncommon for military veterans to experience PTSD as a result of their experiences in war zones, they aren’t the only ones who experience PTSD.
Anyone who undergoes a traumatic experience can suffer from PTSD, including children and adolescents. Traumatic experiences can include something that happened to the child or something that the child witnessed or something that happened to someone close to the child, like a parent, sibling, or peer.
Take a look at some of the things you should know about adolescent PTSD – what it looks like, what the risk factors are, and what you can do about it.
What Causes PTSD?
There are countless types of events that could be traumatic enough to cause PTSD in an adolescent.
Different people can experience the same event differently, so an event that one child bounces back from easily could cause PTSD in a different child.
Some of the common events that cause PTSD in children include:
- Natural disasters
- Physical abuse
- Sexual assault or abuse
- Emotional abuse
- Manmade tragedies like bombings or mass shootings
- Car accidents
- Animal bites
- Invasive medical procedures
While these are common events that could cause PTSD in adolescents, they are not the only events that could cause PTSD.
Even if an event doesn’t seep traumatic enough to cause PTSD to you, it may be traumatic enough to cause PTSD in your child or teenager.
Whether or not an adolescent develops PTSD can also depend on how severe the event was, how long it lasted, whether the event was a repeated occurrence, how close the child was to the event when it happened, how resilient the child is and what kind of coping skills they have, and how supportive the people in the child’s family and community are following the event.
What Does Adolescent PTSD Look Like?
How do you know if your teenager is suffering from PTSD?
It’s to be expected that your child will have some lingering effects after a traumatic event, but what’s normal and what is PTSD?
Children with PTSD will revisit the event over and over again in their minds. They may have nightmares and sleeping problems and may also experience upsetting memories during the day.
Adolescents with PTSD may also feel depressed, irritable, or nervous. They may seem to lose interest in the things that they’ve previously enjoyed doing. They may avoid situations, people, or places that remind them of the traumatic event.
It’s common for adolescents with PTSD to have trouble focusing, experience problems at school, and even display aggressive behavior. They may also regress and act younger than their age.
In addition, they may have difficulty showing affection or worry about dying at a young age. And they may also experience physical symptoms like headaches or stomach aches.
Diagnosis and Treatment
If you think that your child may be experiencing PTSD as a result of a traumatic event, it’s important to make sure that they get appropriate treatment. The sooner that your child is diagnosed and treated, the easier their recovery will be.
PTSD is typically treated with cognitive behavioral therapy, and your child’s doctor may also prescribe medications for depression or anxiety that can help them feel calmer and ease their symptoms.
Recovery from PTSD can take time. How much time depends largely on the individual and the situation. Your child may be feeling better in 6 months, or the symptoms may last much longer.
As a parent, you have an important role to play in your child’s recovery. One of the first things that you need to do is admit that the traumatic event happened. It’s often a parent’s instinct to downplay the significance of a traumatic event or try to pretend everything is normal.
You may think that this is a way of helping your child – by not dwelling on the event and by trying to ensure that life goes back to normal as quickly as possible. But this can be upsetting and confusing for children suffering from trauma.
They may feel as if you’re dismissing their pain or even refusing to believe that they’ve experienced trauma in the first place. This doesn’t help your child at all, and may even make them feel worse.
Instead, be open to talking about what happened, listen carefully to your child’s version of events, and validate their feelings and experiences.
Make sure that you’re supportive of counseling and treatment for your teen’s PTSD. They may be resistant to therapy or counseling at first, but encourage them to go anyway.
Make it a point to keep all of your child’s appointments with their healthcare provider, keep an open line of communication with all your child’s healthcare providers and make sure that they are coordinating with each other.
Depending on the situation, your child’s healthcare team may consist of several professionals including medical doctors, counselors, social workers, psychologists, and psychiatrists. It’s important to be sure that everyone is on the same page when it comes to your child’s treatment.
You may also need to inform others about your child’s PTSD. For example, letting the school know what’s going on with your child can help them come up with strategies to help your child continue to succeed or rebound from an academic slump.
The school can also help your child avoid or cope with potentially upsetting triggers during the school day if they know what’s going on.
It can also help to reach out to your community for resources and support that might not be available elsewhere.
Above all, be on the lookout for symptoms of depression and suicidal ideation in your teenager.
People with PTSD can suffer from depression and become suicidal, and because adolescents can be impulsive, they may be at serious risk for a suicide attempt.
Always take threats of suicide seriously and get treatment immediately – suicide is a health emergency that’s as serious and as potentially life-threatening as a physical emergency like a heart attack.
Dr. Nalin is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist, and Founder and Executive Director of Paradigm Treatment Centers, who has been a respected leader in the field of adolescent mental health for more than 20 years. He received his undergraduate degree from the University of Southern California, his Master’s degree from Loyola Marymount University, his Doctoral degree from Pacific University’s APA approved Clinical Psychology program, and completed his training at the University of California, San Diego’s APA approved psychology internship program.
Dr. Nalin has provided training and mentoring to students entering the field of psychology at institutions of learning including Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Education and Psychology, UCSD, Pacific University, and Santa Monica College. He was also instrumental in the development of the treatment component of Los Angeles County’s first Juvenile Drug Court, which now serves as a national model.
Dr. Nalin has appeared as an expert on shows ranging from CBS News and Larry King, to CNN, The Today Show and MTV. He was also featured in an Anti-Drug Campaign for the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP).
Dr. Nalin is a Diplomate of the National Institute of Sports Professionals and a Certified Sports Psychologist as well as a Certified Chemical Dependency Intervention Specialist. He lectures and conducts workshops nationally on the issues of teen mental health, substance abuse prevention, and innovative adolescence treatment.
In 2017 Dr. Nalin was awarded The Sigmund Freud Foundation and Sigmund Freud University’s Distinguished Achievement Award in recognition of his work with youth in the field of mental health over the course of his career.