Trauma and Adolescents: ‘How Can I Help?’

By: Kristine L. Vazquez, MA, LPC, Therapist

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‘She’s staying out all night with the wrong crowd;’ ‘He refuses to spend time with the family;’ and ‘I don’t know, it’s like she stopped caring about her future.’ Working as a mental health professional, I have repeatedly heard statements like these from concerned caregivers. Where a lot of these behaviors can be attributed to characteristics of an adolescents’ natural developmental stage, it can be signs of distress post a traumatic event. A traumatic event is an experience that causes psychological, emotional, physical distress, or harm. The individual may experience and perceive the event as a threat to one’s safety or to the stability of their world. Traumatic events may involve: separation from parents (perceived abandonment); loss of trust; interpersonal violence or victimization; relocation; divorce; sudden loss of loved one; and physical, sexual, or emotional abuse. What’s important to know, is that what may be traumatic for one individual may not necessarily be identified as traumatic for another.

Traumatic events may impact multiple areas of the adolescents’ life. This may be reflected in underachievement and school failure, detachment from healthy relationships and a decrease in goal setting. Even more alarming is their decrease in good-decision making skills that lead to the engagement of reckless behaviors and the potential of developing dangerous coping mechanisms. Adolescents may turn to substance abuse, self-injurious behaviors and/or unhealthy sexual activities. Every adolescent is different.

Adolescents’ resiliency, or protective factors, plays a significant role in their interpretation of the traumatic event and subsequently the impact it will have and the recovery time. Caregivers are influential in the development of adolescents’ resiliency factors. These factors can be fostered through a strong, positive relationship with the primary caregiver who acts to ensure safety; a support system that is committed to spending time together and resolving problems and conflicts efficiently; and a family unit that celebrates successes, has predictable routines, holds shared values and beliefs, and practices meaningful rituals.  Therefore, if the minor is exposed to a traumatic event, they are less likely to reach a level of distress that is clinically defined as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

‘When should I be concerned?’ There are signs, that when identified as being reoccurring, may let the caregiver know that the minor needs additional supports.

What to look for:

  • Increased irritability, sadness, and anxiousness
  • Reports of physical ailments (e.g. headaches, stomach aches, back pain, etc.)
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Low self-esteem and/or reports of guilt and shame
  • Social isolation
  • Poor impulse control
  • Substance abuse
  • Difficulties managing emotions

Caregivers can help. Trauma signs and symptoms will present with impairments in adolescents’ social, developmental, and physical functioning. Caregivers may minimize these challenges by learning about the common reactions to traumatic events; being patient with the minor; assuring the minor that they are not responsible; maintaining a regular home and school routine; taking time to explore your own thoughts and feelings regarding the traumatic event and consulting with a qualified mental health professional.