A traumatic event can significantly alter an individual’s life, especially when it happens during adolescence, so it is important for teens to learn to cope with trauma. Typically, teens are learning to find themselves during adolescence. They are discovering what is important to them and possibly what career path to follow. However, a traumatic event, such as the loss of a parent, witnessing violence, or the suicide of a close friend can greatly impair the psychological and emotional health of a teen.
If you are a parent or caregiver, knowing what to do to best support your adolescent through the aftermath of a crisis can make a difference in how your teen heals from the traumatic event. This article will provide tips on how to help your teen cope with trauma.
Trauma Can be Life Altering
A traumatic event is one that threatens the physical or psychological well being of an individual. Often, a person experiences great fear and helplessness during a traumatic event, and those feelings frequently create anxiety and unbearable stress, even after the event is over. Sometimes, the shock of an event that happens suddenly can also create great psychological distress. Traumatic events can include many different types, including experiencing a natural disaster, like a hurricane. Or they can be caused by other individuals, such as being the victim of a crime, witnessing violence, or being involved in a terrorist attack.
Because of the intense feelings that come with trauma, individuals often experience symptoms during days, weeks, and even months after a traumatic event has occurred. Typical responses to trauma include:
- emotional detachment or unresponsiveness
- anxiety, even about things unrelated to the incident
- sadness or depression
- isolation from family and friends
- difficulty concentrating
- amnesia – loss of memory for parts or all of the traumatic event
- flashbacks or recurring images of the trauma
- strong feelings of fear or panic
- high levels of stress when an object or person reminds you of the event
- avoidance of people, objects, and places that stimulate reliving the trauma
- chronic tension
- aches and pains
- guilt or shame
- denial or disbelief
- mood swings
6 Ways to Help Your Teen Cope with Trauma
If you notice that your teen is experiencing any of these symptoms or showing signs of distress after a major incident, there are a few steps you can take to help them cope with trauma. You might encourage them and support them in doing the following:
- Spend time with loved ones. Being around supportive people can be a great help to your teen. Knowing that there are family and friends around to help can ease the symptoms that may be associated with the traumatic incident.
- Stick with a routine. Encourage your teen to go to school, get their homework done, and attend school activities as they used to. Staying with what is familiar is one way of experiencing psychological support. This might require some sensitivity on the part of parents, however. For instance, if your teen is strongly suggesting that they need a short break from school, then perhaps that might best support them. Yet, generally, helping your teen stick with what is familiar to them can help them feel safe and more at ease.
- Make sure to eat well. It’s easy to neglect self-care when you are not feeling well. If you notice your teen experiencing hardship as a result of a recent trauma, be sure to help them eat balanced meals. It will support their mental clarity, physical health, and emotional stability. Eating well is an essential part to psychological health, and it can help your teen return to psychological well being when affected by trauma.
- Get at least 9 hours of sleep. Unlike adults, teens need to sleep at least 9 hours, sometimes 9.5 hours. And this is especially true if your teen is already feeling anxious and unsettled because of a recent event. You can support your teen by making sure that they get the amount of sleep they need to stay emotionally and psychologically well.
- Stay physically active. Exercise is a great way to cope with anxiety and stress, especially the stress that arises from trauma. If your teen is feeling edgy or agitated frequently as a result of a traumatic event, physical activity can help your teen manage the edginess.
- Avoid alcohol and drugs. It might be tempting for your teen to drink or use drugs to feel better. But in most cases, substances will only make anxiety and agitation worse. To support your teen with this, make sure to talk to them about the dangers of drug use, especially when using substances to feel better. Using drugs and alcohol for emotional support often leads to a dependence upon them. Instead, provide your teen with coping tools to use when feeling stressed. And encourage your teen to follow the above suggestions as well in order to minimize anxiety.
How to Know When to Get Professional Help
Sometimes, the above suggestions simply aren’t enough. The symptoms that develop as a result of trauma may continue to worsen. If this is the case, then it’s necessary to get professional assistance. It’s necessary to seek out the support of a mental health provider. If your teen is experiencing one or more of the following, it may indicate the need to see a therapist or psychologist:
- frequently crying
- excessive worrying, especially if it interferes with daily life
- having trouble thinking clearly
- having frightening thoughts or flashbacks
- frequently feeling fearful
- often feeling angry
- inability to sleep because of disturbing nightmares
- frequently experiencing a racing heart
- frequently feeling tired
Furthermore, even if your teen isn’t experiencing the above signs, but they have experienced trauma in the past, already have a mental illness, or lack support from family and friends, then it may be wise to bring your teen to a mental health provider. Commonly, teens who experience trauma and who don’t have the support they need develop worsening symptoms. Teens can best recover from a traumatic experience when there are loving and supportive adults in their life to support them through it.
When seeking for a mental health provider, you might want to search out a professional who specializes in trauma and/or specializes in working with adolescents. Therapists and psychologists tend to have areas of concentration, and knowing this may help parents find the best mental health provider to help their teen cope with trauma.
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.