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PTSD in Teens

PTSD In Teens Erlanger - SUN Kentucky

Imagine how your teenage son or daughter would feel if you or a close loved one suddenly passed away. Would he or she be able to cope? Or would he suddenly find himself having extreme difficulties in school and lashing out against those that love and cherish him?

This scenario isn’t unique or even very rare. Teenagers are under extreme levels of stress as they mature into fine young men and women, and with that comes the possibility of being struck harder by traumatic experiences than what we, as adults, would experience.

Some behavioral hiccups are to be expected as they mature and find themselves. However, when this behavior and mood becomes extreme and prolonged, and coupled with a traumatic experience, it is possible that they have developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD.)

Knowing the signs and symptoms to look out for is the first step in helping your teen. Once your young adult gets help, they can properly work through the trauma to move on and live the life they deserve.

Untreated PTSD can morph into serious challenges later on in life, ranging from trouble in college and trade school to issues with employment, forming a family, and living a normal life.

Thankfully there are treatments available for PTSD, with the essential first step being you knowing what the signs and symptoms of PTSD are and being aware of the options available to help.

What Are the Causes of PTSD in Teens?

There are many different issues that can lead a teen to develop PTSD. Though first, what is PTSD?

PTSD is a mental injury that forms after experiencing or witnessing trauma. It is a natural response to this trauma and has the potential to disrupt someone's way of life, especially with teenagers who are already facing extreme amounts of family, school, and social stresses.

Teenagers' minds have yet to finish developing, as such their response to trauma can be the same as a child’s response. So, even though they think they are adults and may act like one in many circumstances, it is important to not lose sight of their youth and inexperience.

Try to place yourself in the shoes of someone that grew up in the middle of a military conflict and witnessed combat? Or someone that survived a house fire though had to witness all of their possessions go up in smoke?

Traumatic events are difficult for adults to face. Still, teens have an even more challenging time accepting the event and the changes it brings to their lives because it could be the first traumatic event of their life. In contrast, many adults may have experienced such tragedies and have adapted.

But while an adult may shoulder the burden and move on with life, a teen who witnesses a school shooting may develop PTSD and respond by acting out shooting scenes as a coping mechanism.

Violent crimes such as sexual or physical abuse are more significant factors leading teens to develop PTSD.

Some types of events that could lead to PTSD in teens include:

  • Sexual abuse
  • Physical abuse
  • A loved one's death
  • A loved one diagnosed with cancer
  • A house fire
  • Military combat
  • Car accidents
  • The target of hate or threats
  • Earthquakes or other natural disasters
  • Domestic violence in the home
  • Robbery
  • A school shooting

Is Trauma Always the Underlying Cause of PTSD in Teens?

The underlying cause of PTSD in teens is almost always a traumatic event. There are, however, some other factors that can contribute to the development of PTSD.

These factors are:

Genetics: Having a family history of mental disorders makes teens more likely to develop PTSD.

Emotional: Teens with a history of anxiety, depression, or another mental health disorder are more prone to developing PTSD.

Environmental: Teens that experience trauma for a more extended time, like abuse or neglect, are more prone to developing PTSD.

Physical: Hormones and chemicals in the brain are different during teenage development. They play a role in how people regulate emotions and their response to stressful situations, which could be a factor in developing PTSD.

How Common Is PTSD in Teens?

Approximately 7-8 percent of the population in the United States will experience PTSD at some point in their lives. PTSD affects around 10% of women and 4% of men.

Approximately 5% of teens have met the criteria for PTSD at some point. Prevalence is higher in girls (8%) than boys (2.3%) and it rises as they age.

In Kentucky alone, 30% of high-schoolers reported feelings of sadness to the extent of loss of interest and stopping of activities, which are both potential indicators of PTSD. Untreated, these symptoms can devolve into signs of suicidal ideation.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2011, 11 percent of Kentucky teens attempted suicide compared to 8 percent nationally.

PTSD does not have to end in suicide. Some treatments can intervene before it ever escalates that far.

What are some Common PTSD Symptoms in Teens?

While there are some common signs of PTSD in teenagers, your loved one may not have every single sign as each situation is unique.

Some of the common symptoms of PTSD can be:

  • Trouble sleeping and experiencing nightmares
  • Vivid and continuing flashbacks from the event
  • Avoiding areas or things that remind them of the trauma
  • Loss in the enjoyment of activities once enjoyed
  • More easily startled and jumpy
  • Anxious
  • Irritability
  • Mistrust of others
  • Mood swings
  • Impulsive or destructive behaviors
  • Substance use

The near-worst things that could strike your family did. Your seventeen-year-old son had wrapped up football practice and decided to ride home with a teammate. The teammate, inexperienced behind the wheel, lost control over his beat up sedan and plummeted into a deep ravine – all the whole going well above the speed limit. Your son, thankfully, survived. His friend, to the eternal regret of his family and the town at large, passed away.

The symptoms start slowly at first, following the funeral. Your son stopped going to practice and eventually started to refuse to play football. He begins to have difficulty falling asleep. He claims that he sees the car flipping off the ravine every night before he goes to bed, every time he closes his eyes. As a result, he often isolates himself, stays in his room, and doesn't go out of the house anymore.

He may have PTSD.

Fortunately, some treatments can assist someone displaying some of these characteristics of PTSD. Not every teen will develop PTSD that goes through trauma. Still, it may be a good idea to observe them for a few weeks to see if anything changes their mood and behaviors.

Are the Symptoms of PTSD Different in Adults Than the Symptoms in Teens?

When teens have PTSD, they tend to remember the trauma events out of sequence. Younger PTSD sufferers also tend to have fewer flashbacks than adults.

Teens may also reenact the trauma through play and other activities than adults will. Additionally, they usually have more problems with impulse control than adults with PTSD. To cap the differences off, teens are significantly more likely than adults to develop some form of PTSD.

You wake up in the middle of the night to the sound of a window breaking downstairs. Your wife is away, though your teenage son in the next bedroom wakes up as well. The two of you head down the stairs while trying to keep absolutely silent. At the bottom of the stairs you find the robber – armed with a gun and looking ready to use it.

Instinctively, you throw your son back and then dive on the robber. The two of you fight. You get sucker punched but manage to land a nice right hook. The man drops the gun and runs off into the night, leaving you and your son free to call the police.

A month later you have moved on from the event, thankful that nothing was stolen and your son was unhurt. But your son couldn’t process it, couldn’t move beyond it. The memory of the event keeps flooding his mind, impacting nearly every aspect of his life. He has developed PTSD.

You did everything possible to protect your son but you were still shocked to see this injury spring forth without warning. You recognize the symptoms from your time in the Army, just in a different form. What your son experiences is stronger, more devastating than what happened to your battle-acclimated friends from back in your infantry days.

There is only one chance at helping your son – find the support of specialists that handle teenage PTSD issues.

What Are the Long-Term Effects of PTSD in Teens?

Untreated PTSD in teens can lead to numerous problems including brain damage, more risky behavior, or potential negative encounters with the law. These risks do not decrease with time. On the contrary, the longer PTSD is untreated the worse the issues may become.

Teenagers are not known for having well developed decision making skills. A fact made worse when adding the chaotic and painful elements of PTSD to the mix.

Untreated PTSD can lead to any number of problems, such as:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Substance use disorders
  • Panic disorders and phobias

How To Respond to Teens With PTSD

PTSD does not go away on its own. Get your teen the support they need to overcome the trauma and move on with their life. 

Medical professionals can offer treatment such as counseling and some medications to assist with sleep issues, mood, and anxiety.

A young teenage girl goes to her first party by herself - proud of the license and car she worked hard for. At the party she drinks from a cup offered to her and faints. She awakens to a nightmare she had heard about on the news but never imagined happening to her. She is afraid to tell anyone because the person who assaulted her is a well-known and respected community member. She fears that no one will believe her if she says anything.

As time passes, she has trouble sleeping and complains of nightmares. She has flashbacks of the event, so she refuses to leave home except when she has to go to school. She has begun to be emotionally numb and argumentative.

She is displaying all the symptoms of PTSD.

If you have a teen experiencing symptoms of PTSD, it is wise to seek out therapy to help. Your teen deserves the chance to heal and be able to move on with his or her life without the burdens that come with PTSD.

Does Therapy Help With PTSD in Teens?

If you suspect that your teen may be struggling with PTSD, the first thing that you should do is make sure they can openly communicate with you. PTSD can disrupt home life and school life, and high school is an important time for education.

Therapy has been proven to help many teens move on from the trauma and live successful and healthy lives. Other treatments include Prolonged Exposure (PE) and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR.)

All three options, and the several more we haven’t discussed, may be effective when used to treat the condition. The sooner the symptoms are treated, the better. For it is possible that the symptoms of PTSD may become so severe that they alone   another traumatic event.

Getting Help for PTSD in Teens

If you are concerned that your teen may be displaying some of the characteristics of PTSD, there are ways to help them move on. 

At SUN Behavioral, we offer treatment for PTSD that focuses specifically on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT.).

CBT focuses on changing the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors the patient experiences when certain triggers are encountered. For example, CBT will teach your teen to deal with stress more effectively.

We will use evidence-based treatment to help patients overcome trauma. In addition, we offer inpatient and outpatient treatment to ensure that your teen moves past this and start enjoying life again. 

Help Your Teen With PTSD

Our team of therapists will also equip them with the tools they need to deal with future stress in a healthy manner.

If you or a loved one has PTSD, don't hesitate to contact us right away at (859) 429-5188. Our objective is to get you back on the road you deserve.


FAQs About PTSD in Teens

Can a teenager have PTSD?

Teens may be more vulnerable to PTSD than adults. A teenager who has developed PTSD may feel they cannot escape the event and will replay it frequently. Some children and teens can form PTSD from what parents may assume are only normal childhood events such as bullying.

What are the symptoms of PTSD in teens?

PTSD symptoms in teenagers can include avoiding activities that remind them of the experience, flashbacks, moodiness, and impulsive behaviors. Sometimes they may suffer from nightmares and have trouble sleeping.

What does minor PTSD look like?

Minor PTSD symptoms may include the inability to speak, avoidance of people and activities, problems sleeping, and striving to avoid unrelated cues that can readily re-trigger the trauma.

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