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Could Your Teen be Experiencing PTSD?

Embark Behavioral Health
September 23, 2021

What PTSD Looks Like and What to Do Next 

Your teen is acting differently. They’re not sleeping well, getting sick more often, or avoiding what they typically enjoy. They may seem less happy and more anxious. They show aggressive behavior or lose their temper in situations that don’t make sense. It’s not like your teen at all. 

Is this just part of being a teenager… or could it be symptoms of PTSD?

What is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder? 

The American Psychological Association (APA) definition of trauma includes: 

“Longer-term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships, and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea. While these feelings are normal, some people have difficulty moving on with their lives.” 

In other words, trauma is any experience or memory which exceeds our ability to cope or make sense of things. 

What’s the difference between PTSD and C-PTSD? 

PTSD occurs after a specific incident — an accident, sexual assault, physical assault, a natural disaster, medical intervention, or a miscarriage, for example. 

C-PTSD or Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder occurs when the traumatic events are ongoing for a period of time. Bullying, unstable childhoods, oppression, sexual abuse, or physical abuse are all situations that can create C-PTSD. 

For example, those who are adopted and have relinquishment histories incur a separation from the biological mother, which is traumatizing to the baby. Often times children experience trauma from experiencing multiple relocations and different caregivers when in foster care and other social services programs. 

Children who witnessed someone else go through a traumatic event or who know someone who has, such as a family member, can also experience symptoms of trauma, called secondary PTSD. This is one reason why schools have counselors available after tragic events such as natural disasters or the death of a student or teacher. 

Families of military and first responders have also shown that families can absorb the emotions and stress — exhibiting the same PTSD symptoms. And if young people witness a loved one experience something terrible, they can also be traumatized with secondary PTSD.  

What do PTSD and C-PTSD look like in your teen? 

If your teen has PTSD, they’ll experience some combination of:  

  • Hypervigilance or hyperarousal: They are constantly on alert because they want to keep traumas from happening again.  
  • Avoidance: They avoid situations that remind them of the trauma. 
  • Flashbacks: This research defines a flashback as “distressing, sensory-based involuntary memories of trauma.” Some instances can be so real during a flashback they feel like they’re reliving the experience. 

Those dealing with C-PTSD also may experience : 

  • Struggle to control their emotions, including explosive anger, constant sadness, depression, and even suicidal thoughts.  
  • Have a negative view of themselves. They might see themselves as different or “less than” everyone else. Guilt, shame, or feelings of helplessness can be experienced. 
  • Struggle to maintain relationships. 
  • Detach from their trauma. They might not even remember what happened, but it can come back all of a sudden.  
  • Lose their sense of meaning. They may reject values they previously held or walk away from religious beliefs.  

If your teen seems like they need support with their mental health, it’s a good idea to get help and consider treatment options. 

What this can look like in day-to-day life 

Rob Gent, Embark Behavioral Health’s Chief Clinical Officer explains, “Those with PTSD can experience triggering events which activate their nervous system in ways that create survival responses, withdrawal, isolation, and feelings of confusion and shame.”  

Due to the activation of the nervous system and implicit memory system, they’re likely to use self-soothing behaviors to cope with the anxiety, pain, and distress through the use of food, substance abuse, video games, social media… whatever they think will help them experience relief.  

“With C-PTSD, it’s more generalized. They’ve lived in a situation where it has gone on for maybe a long time. They’ve developed coping mechanisms, including being alert for anything that could happen (hypervigilance). In one way, they know what to look for. On the other hand, it’s ongoing for a period of months or years… With chronic PTSD, it’s more embedded in their neurobiology.” 

Does It Sound Like Your Teen May Have PTSD? 

Your teen may not show all of the above symptoms, but you should seek professional help if you are concerned. If it’s not PTSD, they could still show signs of a mood disorder like depression, an anxiety disorder, a substance use disorder, or something else that requires professional treatment. 

You may or may not know what is causing your teenagers distress, but PTSD and C-PTSD result from a painful situation that continues to impact the individual emotionally, physiologically, and psychologically even after the initial circumstance is resolved. This causes a pattern that keeps them from thriving at home, at school, and in relationships. 

If the situation isn’t resolved — such as ongoing dysfunctional family life, bullying, or emotional abuse, a therapist or treatment center can work with your family to stop the pain and begin the healing. 

What Should You Look for in a Therapist or Treatment Program for a Teen with PTSD? 

“At Embark, we take a bottom-up approach to treating PTSD in teens and young adults.” Rob Gent says.  “We have to really look at what’s happening to the nervous system and see if we can get it regulated before we move forward. We know that the nervous system reacts way before the cognitive brain does.”  

“Where is the trauma stored? The trauma is actually stored all over, but the first thing to react is the nervous system.” 

This is why your teen has problems sleeping, “flies off the handle,” is always seeking things that relax them, or is sick all the time — the trauma is being stored all over the body. 

Is this where techniques like EMDR and Brainspotting come in? 

“Yes. The whole principle starting out is to release traumatic memories that have been stored in the nervous system.” Rob explains. “When we have release, we can reorganize those memories into something that makes sense. Then your teen has more control and influence over them.” 

Once your teen achieves safety within relationship and regulation with their nervous system, we can move forward with reinforcement of relational security and other therapeutic interventions that strengthen healing. 

You can find therapists that use Brainspotting and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) in your community. Research studies have shown both of these techniques to be effective tools for treating trauma. 

If you or a loved one are in distress or need crisis or preventative support, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline online or call 1-800-273-8255.

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Embark Behavioral Health

Embark Behavioral Health is a leading network of clinics and programs offering premier mental health treatment for adolescents and young adults. Dedicated to its mission of reversing the trends of adolescent and young adult anxiety, depression, and suicide by 2028, Embark is unlike any other behavioral health organization in the United States. Embark offers a full continuum and spectrum of services, a unique 25-years of specialization, a deep legacy of serving youth, and a set of internationally validated outcomes that drive treatment in real-time. For more information about Embark or its treatment programs, including wilderness therapy, long-term residential treatment centers, short-term residential treatment centers, day treatment, partial hospitalization (PHP) programs, intensive outpatient programs (IOP), outpatient, and virtual counseling.