Dealing with trauma is challenging, both for the person with trauma and their loved ones. If your teen or young adult child has experienced a traumatic event, they may be struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which affects their emotional well-being and ability to cope and can trigger them to relive the event. In some cases, this disorder can lead to substance abuse, relationship issues, and problems with daily tasks. If your son or daughter has this mental health condition, it’s important to know how to help someone with PTSD.
To inform you about how to support your child, we turned to Rob Gent, Embark Behavioral Health’s chief clinical officer.
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What Is PTSD?
PTSD stands for post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s triggered by a terrifying event, such as an assault or a serious accident. People with PTSD can have intense emotional and physical reactions long after the event has ended.
“PTSD is an anxiety disorder where you have experiences from the past that are not being made sense of, so they stay with you,” Gent said. “You have recurring flashbacks where you re-experience the event and have intrusive thoughts. There’s perpetual blaming of others or blaming yourself. It’s the body’s way of saying, ‘I don’t know how to integrate this.’”
According to the World Health Organization’s World Mental Health Surveys, 20% of those with the disorder recover within three months, 27% within six months, and 50% within 24 months.
“Statistically, most people who have PTSD recover within the first year,” Gent said. “However, that plateaus after 72 months. So, parents have to identify the timing of the traumatic event to really know how to help their child with PTSD. If it’s been post-72 months and symptoms persist, that could affect long-term neurobiological functioning.”
Symptoms of PTSD
What are signs of PTSD? Gent advised parents look for:
- Intrusive thoughts.
- Persistent, distressing recollections of a traumatic event.
- Distressing dreams.
- Emotional distress expressed when associations with a traumatic event are made.
- Physical distress expressed when associations with a traumatic event are made.
- Avoidance of thoughts, feelings, or conversations that are associated with a traumatic event.
- Avoidance of activities, places, or people that are associated with a traumatic event.
- Diminished interest or participation in significant activities.
- Problems concentrating.
- Sleep disturbances.
- Irritability, aggressive behavior, or outbursts.
- Being easily frightened or startled.
Being able to distinguish signs of PTSD from normal adolescent behavior is important. Focus on how persistent these symptoms are and how much they impair your teen or young adult’s daily activities.
Gent also recommended you look for a specific event or series of exposures to threatening events that preceded the symptoms. An example would be being in a car accident, severe bullying at school, an incident or multiple experiences of sexual abuse, or any other incident where a severe threat and overwhelming stress was experienced. Identifying the onset of symptoms and their triggers is important when helping someone with PTSD.
What You Can Do To Help Someone With PTSD
Although post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms may seem overwhelming and frightening, there are numerous ways you can help someone with PTSD. Keep the following in mind:
- Don’t let someone with PTSD push you away: Withdrawal and avoidance are common symptoms of this disorder. Being physically close with your son or daughter when they’re struggling and showing you’re there to accept and nurture them creates a grounding effect where they can co-regulate their feelings with you. Co-regulation happens after repeated experiences of commitment, acceptance, security, and attunement — empathy in action — occur. At Embark, this approach to creating a therapeutic, healing relationship is known as the CASA Developmental Framework, which Gent developed.
- Find PTSD support: Participating in PTSD support groups helps people with PTSD 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.
- Learn how to help with PTSD symptoms: Helping someone with PTSD symptoms such as nightmares, flashbacks, and panic attacks requires establishing a secure base with them. Gent advised attuning — empathizing — with your child. Stay in close proximity, and provide safe touch such as an earnest and compassionate hug. Don’t overwhelm your child by “talking through the problem” or using logic in those moments where they’re 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.
- Encourage treatment for PTSD: Many different PTSD treatments and therapies exist, including trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (TF-CBT) for PTSD. TF-CBT is an evidence-based psychotherapy 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. In addition, medications such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) can help regulate symptoms. Gent encouraged parents to seek psychiatrists who use a holistic approach that balances relational, psychiatric, and medication components. You can find therapists and psychiatrists by using the Psychology Today search tool. In addition, medications such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) can help regulate symptoms. Gent encouraged parents to seek psychiatrists who use a holistic approach that balances relational, psychiatric, and medication components. You can find therapists and psychiatrists by using the Psychology Today search tool.
- Learn about PTSD triggers: Situations that remind your son or daughter of past trauma can trigger PTSD symptoms. For example, a person who experienced a car accident may have a panic attack when asked to get into a car. For how to deal with PTSD triggers, Gent said it’s important to understand that rationalizing or trying to logically or rationally eliminate the effects of the trigger or symptoms is ineffective, increases feelings of shame, and damages relationships. Instead, he advised you attune with your child’s needs, sit with them during these intense moments, and use eye contact, safe touch, empathy, and words of affirmation and acceptance to create an emotional experience of unconditional love.
What Not To Do To Someone With PTSD
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 only increases 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.
On the other hand, creating moments of co-regulation by establishing a safe space can help someone with PTSD gain a better sense of self-worth. Self-worth dissolves shame, allowing them to integrate past trauma and recover from the disorder.
“Parents need to reframe 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?’”
He pointed out that parents and even well-intentioned therapists may want teens and young adults living with PTSD to know or make sense of what they’re going through. Unfortunately, the very nature of the disorder prevents them from thinking rationally when they re-experience trauma.
“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 attune with what they need — empathy and security?”
How To Help Someone With PTSD: Putting It All Together
Understanding what post-traumatic stress disorder is informs how you can 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 child.
Be willing to attune with your child 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 child to ensuring they get plenty of exercise, nutritious food, and sleep.
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!