If your teen or young adult has post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), it’s important to know how to help someone with PTSD, as dealing with trauma can be challenging. The disorder can affect their emotional well-being and ability to cope. In some cases, it can lead to substance use, relationship issues, and problems with daily tasks.
To inform you about how to support your teen or young adult, we turned to Embark Behavioral Health Chief Clinical Officer Dr. Rob Gent, who has a doctorate in psychology.
Table of contents
- What You Can Do To Help Someone With PTSD
- 1. Don’t let someone with PTSD push you away
- 2. Create safe spaces built for trust and communication
- 3. Find and provide support
- 4. Be aware of PTSD triggers
- 5. Learn how to help with PTSD symptoms
- 6. Practice healthy communication
- 7. Encourage treatment for PTSD
- What Not To Do To Someone With PTSD
- How To Help Someone With PTSD: Putting It All Together
What You Can Do To Help Someone With PTSD
PTSD is triggered by traumatic events, and those who struggle with this disorder can have intense physical and emotional reactions long after the event ends. Some of the best ways you can help someone with PTSD include not letting them push you away, creating safe spaces, finding and providing support, being aware of triggers and symptoms, practicing healthy communication, and encouraging treatment.
1. Don’t let someone with PTSD push you away
Withdrawal and avoidance are common symptoms of this disorder. If you’re wondering what to do when someone with PTSD pushes you away, be physically close with your teen or young adult when they’re struggling and show you’re there to accept and nurture them. This creates a grounding effect where they can co-regulate their feelings with you, experiencing a reciprocal exchange of emotional, neurological, and physical safety.
“A safe interpersonal relationship is the most effective mechanism for calming the nervous system, opening the window of tolerance, and allowing for the integration of trauma, which allows our bodies and brains to make sense of their memories and experiences,” Gent said. “Teens and young adults don’t forget their trauma, but the trauma no longer emotionally dysregulates them.”
2. Create safe spaces built for trust and communication
Creating moments of co-regulation by establishing a safe space is a great way to help someone with PTSD gain a better sense of self-worth. Self-worth dissolves shame, allowing young people to integrate past trauma and recover from the disorder.
“We often underestimate what it means for someone with PTSD to be in these moments of terror,” Gent said. “It’s a state of panic, of complete abandonment, of re-experiencing a moment where you didn’t know if you were going to be physically OK. That’s terror. So, as a parent, can I sit with the power of terror and provide what they need — empathy and security?”
To create a safe space, Gent suggested you:
- Establish a comfortable place in the home free of distractions where you can solely focus on your teen or young adult.
- Maintain eye contact to let them know you’re there for them.
- Practice safe touch, such as an earnest and compassionate hug, and maintain proximity with them.
3. Find and provide support
When it comes to how to help someone with PTSD, there are several ways you can support your teen or young adult, starting with connecting them with PTSD support groups.
- Take advantage of social support: Participating in PTSD support groups helps young people cope with the experience of living with trauma. You can find these groups by using the Psychology Today search tool. Family support groups, such as those offered by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, can also be helpful.
- Spend quality time together: Going out for dinner or taking walks together can strengthen your relationship with your son or daughter, which helps create the safe space those with PTSD need. However, keep in mind that spending quality time together does not mean you need to talk about trauma. Since the very nature of PTSD keeps young people from making sense of their trauma, talking about it can increase stress.
- Be there if they want to talk: Reassure your teen or young adult that you’re there for them when they’re ready to talk. You don’t need to push them to say anything in that moment. Just let them know you’ll be available when they need you — and then make time for them when they’re ready to open up to you.
- Be patient: “If you want to have patience, make sure you’re able to take a step back and empathize with what’s happening emotionally and physically with your teen or young adult,” Gent said. “See that they’re doing their best. We often get impatient with people because we have expectations of them that they’re not meeting. So, take a step back.”
4. Be aware of PTSD triggers
Images, sounds, and other stimuli that remind teens and young adults of past trauma can trigger a PTSD episode. Gent encouraged being aware of these PTSD triggers so you can respond to them. For instance, if you know that news stories about a trauma your teen or young adult experienced triggers them, you can step in and offer support when the media reports such a story.
5. Learn how to help with PTSD symptoms
Helping someone with PTSD includes addressing symptoms such as anger, flashbacks, and panic attacks. Situations that remind your son or daughter of past trauma can trigger these symptoms. For example, a person who experienced a car accident may have a panic attack when asked to get into a car.
Following are tips for addressing specific symptoms: anger, flashbacks, and panic attacks.
PTSD and anger can go together, and the anger can be frightening to family members, especially if it doesn’t subside, leading to prolonged outbursts. To help your teen or young adult when they’re angry, Gent suggested empathizing with their experience and sharing how you think they might be feeling, without judgment. Then, actively listen to their response so you both understand what they’re going through. This creates a sense of safety for them and can help them eventually make sense of their physical and emotional experience.
A PTSD flashback transports a person back to the time and place when the traumatic event occurred. This is an intense emotional experience that overwhelms a person’s ability to intellectually process what’s happening. To help your teen or young adult, Gent cautioned against trying to verbally rationalize the PTSD flashback. Instead, he encouraged creating a safe environment that helps calm the nervous system.
PTSD panic attacks cause a person to feel sudden, intense fear. When they happen, you can express empathy by verbalizing what you‘d feel if you were your teen or young adult. By acknowledging how overwhelming and frightening these experiences are — and letting your son or daughter know you’ll be there with them until the PTSD panic attacks subside — you can provide them with a sense of safety.
6. Practice healthy communication
When a person with PTSD is ready to talk, it’s important to communicate effectively with them. Keep the following tips in mind:
- Be respectful and treat your teen or young adult with dignity.
- Validate what they’re feeling and experiencing.
- Avoid giving unsolicited advice.
- Listen to what they have to say, and be willing to hear them gradually make sense of their trauma.
- Ask how you can help with their PTSD triggers.
7. Encourage treatment for PTSD
Helping someone with PTSD will likely include working with a mental health professional. If your teen or young adult is not already receiving therapy, encourage them to seek help. You can begin by discussing the benefits of treatment.
Talk about the benefits of getting treatment
Mental health professionals can provide helpful services for someone with PTSD. Share the benefits of treatment with your teen or young adult. They include:
- A professional assessment of their PTSD symptoms and their severity.
- Trauma-specific interventions, such as eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), which uses bilateral stimulation, such as moving the eyes from side to side, to help process trauma.
- Referrals to trauma specialists, if needed.
- Prescriptions for relevant medications, if medication would be helpful.
Point toward mentors and role models to encourage treatment
Gent acknowledged that during the adolescent stage of life, young people are influenced strongly by others, including their peers. Helping someone with PTSD may therefore involve mentioning that their mentors and role models are benefiting from treatment for their own mental health issues. This could encourage your teen or young adult to get professional help.
Discuss types of therapy for PTSD
When it comes to how to help someone with PTSD, many different treatments and therapies exist, including trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (TF-CBT). TF-CBT is an evidence-based approach that can help your son or daughter resolve the lingering effects of trauma. Additional PTSD treatments and therapies include dialectical behavior therapy, art therapy, and equine therapy.
Talk about medication
Medications such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) can help regulate symptoms. Gent encouraged seeking psychiatrists who use a holistic approach that balances relational, psychiatric, and medication components.
What Not To Do To Someone With PTSD
When helping your teen or young adult deal with post-traumatic stress disorder, it’s helpful to keep in mind what not to do to someone with PTSD.
Avoid poor communication techniques
While you may become frustrated when trying to help your son or daughter during such a difficult time, yelling at someone with PTSD or trying to talk them out of their symptoms can increase their feelings of shame, making these some of the worst things to do to someone with PTSD. Their sense of trust and ability to feel secure goes down, making it much harder for them to heal.
Avoid discounting or downplaying your teen or young adult’s traumatic experience. An event that may have not traumatized one person may leave someone else with unresolved emotions. Instead, make it clear that you support them and are there to listen to what they have to say.
Don’t use logic to try to fix PTSD symptoms or triggers
Don’t try “talking through the problem” or using logic in moments when your teen or young adult is emotional to “fix” their fear, pain, and confusion. Since PTSD overwhelms a person’s ability to be rational, your son or daughter won’t be able to make sense of what they’re going through until they feel emotionally safe and secure. This makes using logic a key example of what not to do to someone with PTSD.
“Parents need to refrain from trying to ‘fix’ their children when they’re triggered and re-experience a traumatic event,” Gent said. “Instead, they should focus on ‘How do I get them back to a place of security, nurturance, and regulation?’”
Try not to get stressed, frustrated, or angry
Getting stressed out, frustrated, or angry while helping your teen or young adult can negatively affect them. Gent noted that it’s important to avoid judging how a traumatic event “should” have affected your son or daughter or becoming frustrated when they don’t recover from their trauma as quickly as you expected. Accept that they’re doing the best they can with their struggles, and communicate this to them empathetically.
It’s also important that you don’t ignore your own mental health needs. Make sure to sleep, eat, and exercise properly. Spend time with friends, and take part in personal hobbies and interests. Cultivate a support network, and possibly talk to a therapist yourself. These steps can help you deal with stress in a healthy way.
How To Help Someone With PTSD: Putting It All Together
Understanding what post-traumatic stress disorder is informs how to help someone with PTSD. Observe what triggers your son or daughter’s PTSD symptoms. Try and identify the initial traumatic event that preceded the disorder. Providing this information to therapists and psychiatrists will help them create a better treatment plan for your teen or young adult.
Be willing to attune with them to help them gain a feeling of self-worth. Create an environment of safety, acceptance, and nurturance where they can co-regulate their emotions and heal. This can mean anything from being willing to sit with your teen or young adult to ensuring they get plenty of exercise, nutritious food, and sleep. This relational approach is key to how to help someone with PTSD.
Embark is the most trusted name in teen and young adult mental health treatment. We’re driven to find the help your family needs. If you’re looking for support, contact us today!