Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is not a one size fits all disorder. How one person experiences the effects of PTSD may vary greatly from the next. However, there are certain signs and symptoms of PTSD to be aware of. Studies have shown that 14% to 43% of children experience at least one traumatic event in their lives. Out of these children, about 3-15% of girls and 1-6% of boys will develop post-traumatic stress disorder. While some children are able to “bounce back” from the traumatic event, some are not so lucky. Unsurprisingly, the more severe or frequent the trauma, the more likely the child will be inflicted with the disorder. Being aware of the symptoms associated with PTSD in teens and adults can bring us closer to treatment and healing.
Signs of PTSD in Teens
A child with PTSD will feel an inability to escape its impacts. It can become quite debilitating. They will try to avoid any and all situations that may act as triggers of the event. These events may include (but are not limited to) physical violence, emotional abuse, death, sexual abuse, and natural disasters. They may have experienced it personally or simply witnessed the event. Day-to-day functioning becomes a challenge in and of itself. Fully expressing what they’re feeling and experiencing may feel impossible. They may experience constant memories, flashbacks, and/or nightmares pertaining to the incident. On the other hand, many sufferers may not even remember the initial trauma. However, the effects of it still remain and linger.
Signs and Symptoms
Some common signs and symptoms of PTSD in children and teens include avoidance, acting impulsively or aggressively, frequent nervousness or anxiousness, emotional numbness, and trouble focusing at school. As well as hypervigilance (or hyperarousal) and depression. Hypervigilance arises due to hyperactivity in the amygdala during the trauma and can remain long after. This may manifest as restlessness, “being on guard”, being jumpy and startled easily, reactivity to loud noises, and sleep disturbances.
When it comes to the depression aspect of the disorder, what’s happening in the prefrontal cortex becomes underactive. This is the part of the brain that regulates emotion and behavior. It’s responsible for impulse control. Low activity in the prefrontal cortex will result in isolation, irritability, and negative emotions. Major depressive disorder is often co-occurring in teens with PTSD.
What Makes PTSD Unique For Teens
While the many signs and symptoms of PTSD are pretty common across all ages, a general negative outlook on life is something that is more specifically associated with children and teens. A shorter life span leading up to the event may have a lot to do with this. They simply don’t have much to compare it to. With their shorter time on this earth, life feels drab and they may not feel much hope for the future. Due to their distorted reality, the world feels like a dangerous place and trust may be lacking or obsolete. Feeling responsible for the initial trauma and its effects is also a common occurrence in teens. Because of this, they may be lacking in self-esteem and confidence, making daily life an even harder line to walk.
Many parents may feel powerless as to where to start in their child or teen’s healing journey after they are diagnosed with PTSD. Thankfully, PTSD is a heavily researched disorder and many treatment options are available. Some common options include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), play therapy, EMDR (or eye movement desensitization and reprocessing), and medication. CBT is talk therapy with great potential. Even better, trauma-focused talk therapy can be used to correct irrational thoughts and may involve relaxation and coping techniques. For children who struggle to communicate their thoughts and emotions, play therapy may work wonders. This may include art therapy and games to help them process the words they cannot find. EMDR is a guided eye movement exercise that helps recall the trauma and the responses the child has regarding it. And finally, medication is available. While there’s no cure, it can help relieve symptoms when paired with another form of therapy.
The symptoms of PTSD often co-occur with other mental illnesses and may lead to substance abuse, impulsivity, and dangerous behaviors. With its complexity, it’s imperative to look at the entire mental health picture when diagnosing and treating this disorder. PTSD is treatable and instilling hope in our children and adolescents is a great first step.
Additional Reading: Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
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