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Trauma and Adolescents


Trauma is often associated with very traumatic life events, such as “war, rape, kidnapping, abuse, or natural disaster” [1]. This is not actually true because trauma can develop from any threat to a person’s well-being. Trauma is usually put into two different groups, which are event trauma and process trauma. The difference between the two is that event trauma is “a sudden, unexpected, stressful event that is limited in its duration and location,” while process trauma is “continued exposure to a long-lasting stressor, such as war or physical abuse [1].


So how does this relate to adolescents? Well, “approximately 35 million U.S. children and adolescents have experienced a childhood trauma or adverse childhood experiences (ACEs)” [2]. For children, trauma can come in many different forms, such as “abuse (such as sexual or physical), witnessing domestic violence, neglect, accidents, chronic or sudden medical illness, a death in the family or parental illness, substance abuse, divorce, or incarceration” [2]. This is only in the household, and doesn’t include external factors such as bullying, drugs, outside violence, etc. Whether the trauma occurs from factors outside or inside the home, this trauma can often lead to a lack of trust in parental figures, where “children feel that their parents are not able to protect them, and this fundamentally changes the family relationships and communication” [3].


So why is it so important to evade trauma, especially in adolescents? Trauma can be much more damaging to younger children because they are in a very important stage of development. Physical, emotional, and psychological development all happen in adolescence, and stressors that these children encounter can have “long-lasting impacts” [1]. This can include, but is not limited to, changes in “major structural components of the central nervous system and the neuroendocrine system,” and a decline in social development. Often, when someone goes through trauma, there is a period of process trauma (as we talked about earlier) that can linger, and while navigating how to process the trauma, these kids can have trouble interacting with others socially. On top of this, it is common for these children to “develop anxiety-related disorders and fears” [1].


It may be hard to locate the symptoms of trauma in adolescents, as toddlers are known to have “mood swings” that come with regular, healthy development. The most common symptoms of trauma can include [1,2]:


● Negative mood

● Flashbacks

● Physiological arousal (startling easily, insomnia, elevated heart rate etc.)

● Avoiding talking about the traumatic event or anything linked to the event


These symptoms can vary based on the age of the child. It is important to know the differences between these behaviors based on the child’s age, and how close to the traumatic even that these behaviors start popping up. Here is a list of ages and symptoms that can start to occur after a traumatic event based on the age range [2]:


● Age 3-8:

○ Struggle listening

○ Increased aggressive behavior (which can be shown as frequent temper tantrums)

○ Emotional outbursts

○ Trouble making friends

● Age 8-11

○ Behavior regression

○ Non-compliant/aggressive behavior

○ Verbal aggression

○ Having difficulty concentrating

○ Controlling behavior

○ Struggles developing social relationships

○ Irritability

● Age 12-18

○ Behavior regression

○ Over/under expression

○ Moody

○ Low grades in school

○ Trouble concentrating

○ Isolation behavior

○ Intrusive thoughts

○ Lack of desire to have/maintain social relationships


Something that is important to note here, are the forms of social detachment. There are two forms that can be seen in adolescents when they experience trauma, which is dissociative detachment, and derealization. In the days right after experiencing trauma, detachment and derealization are found in witnesses of the trauma. For example, in a survey done at Stanford after the execution of the murderer of two teenagers, persons close to the case reported feeling like an outsider, or like they were in a dream.


As you can see, a lot of these symptoms are similar, even when the child is in different stages of adolescence. However, the parent’s role can make quite a difference in whether this changes or not. A child’s parents are closest to them, when it comes to physical distance, and seeing trauma symptoms early can lead the parents to start healthy coping mechanisms. This can be tricky to navigate, as some parents may also be dealing with their own unresolved trauma.


For example, a secure attachment between child and parent can lead a child to develop healthily. However, for a parent that may “make excessive demands and easily experience feelings of guilt and failure,” they can become too attached to the child [3]. Vice versa, if the child does not get enough attention and security from their parent, the child then begins to develop an insecure attachment, which can lead them to “seek protection elsewhere” [3]. Although it is tricky to get to that sweet spot in the middle, it is important for parents to learn how to care for their child in the early stages of development to ensure that, at least, the child feels safe within their home.


With this being said, there are still those outside factors that were mentioned before, such as bullying, drugs, etc. This can be a little harder to navigate. Peer pressure, and the feeling of being overwhelmed can lead the child to isolating despite the parent’s role in their social circle. The child may be too embarrassed to tell someone the struggles they’re going through, or they may be afraid to disappoint their “friends” or other social circles that may threaten their well-being. In this case, it may be best for the parent to monitor their child’s behavior, and to be there to provide support for whenever the child may be ready to open up about the traumatic event(s).


If this doesn’t work out, there are care plans that can be taken to help the child. Therapy is a great option for this, especially Cognitive-Behavioral Therapies (TCC). In this form of therapy, the patient is educated on the nature of their trauma, and what their treatment process will entail. Minimizing their guilt can be a result of psycho-education, which will lead to a better ability to establish more defined goals that the child can work toward. This will then lead to exposure therapy, as “the value of the corrective emotional experiences and techniques of gradual exposure to feared situations cannot be underestimated” [3].


For adolescents that do get involved with substances, drug therapy is also available. Some children could have started drugs as a coping mechanism for their trauma. This Skype of therapy will assess the reason for the child’s substance use, and begin the process of treating the trauma to treat the substance use.


So, if you think your child is going through trauma, it is important to look for these warning signs, and to properly address their feelings. It would also be helpful to identify the source of the trauma. With school shootings happening much more frequently, there may also be a rise in children growing up with traumatic stressors, so please seek help for them so they can grow and develop healthily. Every child will deal with the stress differently. If you are not the child’s parent, it is important to support the child as best as you can in a way that makes them comfortable. Once they are stable, then it may be best to contact their guardian if necessary.


References:

1. Eckes, A., & Radunovich, H. L. (2007). Trauma and adolescents. University of Florida IFAS Extension, 1-5.


2. Melinda Smith, M. A. (2023, March 5). Trauma care for children and adolescents. HelpGuide.org. Retrieved April 12, 2023, from https://www.helpguide.org/articles/parenting-family/trauma-care-for-children.htm


3. Malizia, N. (2017) The Psychological Trauma in Children and Adolescents: Scientific and Sociological Profiles. Sociology Mind, 7, 11-25. doi: 10.4236/sm.2017.71002.


 

Contributors:

Author: Kayjah Taylor

Editor: Chadwick Huynh

Health scientist: Abdullah Alharbi


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