Some teens might experience a traumatic event and quickly recover. However, other teens need time to heal. Even an experience that seems like it would be easy to get over might be hard for some teens to recover from. There are many factors that contribute to the resiliency of a teen’s psychological health. And, likewise, there are contributing factors that can undermine the strength of a teen’s mental health. When a teen experiences a traumatic event and already has mental or emotional challenges, that teen may be more vulnerable to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
If A Teen Perceives an Event to be Traumatic, Then It Is
Not all challenging events are traumatic. However, any event that a teen perceives to be traumatic can have the same influence as any trauma. Typically, a trauma is one in which a person experiences the threat to their own life. They might experience terror or fear for their life. Examples of traumatic events include:
- escaping a fire
- physical or sexual abuse
- acts of violence, such as a school shooting
- natural disasters, such as a hurricane or tornado
- violent assaults
- car accidents
- experiences of war
- witnessing another person experience trauma
- being diagnosed with a life-threatening illness
- chronic neglect (not getting your needs met on a consistent basis can become life threatening)
However, there are many events that don’t fall within these categories that might feel to be just as traumatic. For instance, the loss of a loved one, being separated from a primary caregiver (especially at a young age), and a sudden change in lifestyle such as having to move into a foster home. Although some events may not necessarily threaten a teen’s life, they can be psychologically threatening. Even hearing about the trauma that a close friend has gone through can be traumatic. This is sometimes referred to as Secondary or Vicarious Trauma.
10 Factors that Influence a Teen’s Ability to Recover from a Traumatic Event
In most cases, teens can recover from a traumatic event in less than three months, assuming that they have the resiliency to do so. However, some teens simply don’t recover and develop symptoms of PTSD or other mental illnesses, such as anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder. The following factors can play a role in how quickly a teen recovers from a traumatic event:
- Severity of the event
- Length or duration of the event
- Level of a teen’s psychological health
- A teen’s temperament and conditioning
- A teen’s ethnicity and culture
- Whether a teen has experienced trauma in the past
- Whether a teen already has a mental illness
- Tendency of a teen to dissociate during traumatic events
- Level of family support a teen has
- How a teen’s family or primary caregivers responded to the event
Research shows that up to 33% of teens will develop psychological symptoms after experiencing trauma. As mentioned above, some teens might be more psychologically resilient than others. Furthermore, according to the US Department of Veteran Affairs, 5% of teens meet the diagnostic criteria for PTSD, and prevalence is higher in female teens (8%) than male teens (2.3%).
Attachment Plays a Role in a Teen’s Resiliency
Not listed in the factors above is the quality of attachment a teen has with their primary caregiver(s). Attachment is the bond that a child has with their parent. Recent research shows that the quality of attachment plays a significant role in a teen’s level of psychological health. Essentially, the theory states that when a child has a secure relationship with one or more parents they feel safe in the world. In fact, they feel so safe that they have the courage to be themselves, they are willing to take risks in life, they have healthier relationships, and they have the bravery to explore the world. However, when a child is raised without that secure relationship, they often experience anxiety and tend to focus on getting their needs met.
A healthy and secure attachment also gives a child the ability to control and manage their emotions and inner experiences, a skill that they can take into adulthood and adolescence. When a teen who has a secure relationship with their caregiver(s) experiences trauma, they are more likely to recover compared to a teen who lacked a secure relationship with their primary caregiver.
PTSD Symptoms to Look For
As already mentioned, some teens might not necessarily develop PTSD. They might develop another set of symptoms that point to depression, anxiety, or another illness. The following are a list of symptoms that can develop as a result of experiencing trauma. However, even if you don’t see these symptoms and if you are concerned about your teen’s psychological health, it’s essential that you seek professional support. Some illnesses, such as depression and PTSD can get worse over time and even have fatal outcomes. For instance, untreated depression can lead to having suicidal ideation and possibly suicide.
If you are a parent concerned about how your teen has been responding to an event, look for the following signs:
- Chronic tension
- Easily startled
- Difficulty concentrating
- Inability to sit still
- Dissociation – zoning out or appearing as though they are daydreaming
- Feeling numb or detached
- Being emotionally unresponsive
- Inability to remember important aspects of the traumatic event or forgetting the trauma entirely
- Feeling as though the environment seems strange or unreal, known as Derealization
- Feeling as though certain thoughts and feelings do not seem real, known as Depersonalization
- Recurring images of the trauma
- Inner experiences of reliving the traumatic event
- Experiencing high levels of stress when an object or person triggers reminders of the event
- Avoiding people, objects, and places that stimulate reliving the trauma
- Trouble sleeping
- Withdrawal from friends and family
- Depressive symptoms, such as feeling low or sad
- Excessive stress or anxiety, even when not being reminded about the event
Ways You Can Help Your Teen Recover
If you have any concerns about your teen’s ability to recover, getting professional support is essential. However, there are also significant ways that you can provide support. And if you are a parent or caregiver, then your unconditional and nonjudgmental support will be crucial in your teen’s recovery.
Here are a few suggestions for helping your teen through the healing process:
- Be a good listener. You don’t have to be a therapist to know that simply being present to what a person has to say can be healing. Providing a nonjudgmental listening ear can be a great support for someone who has gone through a challenging event. Being heard and understood can help relieve the burden of the experience.
- Help your teen feel safe. One of the biggest impacts of trauma is the way a teen sees the world – one of safety to one of danger and anxiety. Your teen might be triggered by and afraid of the smallest thing. Talking in a calm and slow voice, avoiding any yelling or loud talking, approaching your teen gently and making sure they are accompanied when walking at night. These small acts of kindness can help create a feeling of safety for your teen as they recover from a frightening experience.
- Give your teen a chance to exhibit their anger. As you can imagine, trauma can illicit anger and even aggression. You can talk to your teen about feelings of anger and discuss healthy ways your teen might exhibit that anger. You might also find a support group for your teen to participate in or find a therapist for your teen to work with as a means to work through the anger, as well as recover.
- Encourage your teen to take good care of themselves. It’s important that a teen get a healthy amount of sleep, eat well, and exercise. Taking good care of the physical body can promote psychological health. Other self-care activities such as yoga, meditation, hiking, and participating in enjoyable activities can all help a teen recover from trauma.
Take Good Care of Yourself Too
As mentioned above, people who are close to those who have experienced trauma can begin to experience the signs of trauma themselves. If you are a parent or caregiver who is helping a teen recover from trauma, don’t forget to take good care of yourself and take a break when you need to.
Fortunately, PTSD is not a life-long illness. Your teen can recover with the right tools, support, and healthy lifestyle habits. Eventually, your entire family can move on and enjoy life together.
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.