Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Teens

PTSD, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, used to be something associated only with war veterans and abuse survivors but it can affect anyone who experiences a traumatic event Even though teens and adolescents may show different symptoms than adults , they can suffer from the same disorder and usually require treatment to overcome the challenges it presents.  Understanding the causes and contributing factors can help parents identify when their children need help and how to get them the help they need.

What is PTSD?

Post traumatic stress disorder describes the development of a set of symptoms following a traumatic experience.  Everyone who is impacted by trauma may feel extreme stress and suffer from strong emotional responses, difficulties with normal activities like sleeping, eating, and concentrating, and anxiety or fear related to the circumstances of the event.  However, not everyone impacted by trauma also develops PTSD.

Those who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder will have symptoms for a month or longer and their symptoms don’t abate with time.  In some cases, symptoms do not start directly following the event and may actually get worse as time passes.

What Causes PTSD?

Experiencing a traumatic event like a car accident, natural disaster, violent crime, or physical assault can cause Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  It is not necessary for someone to be injured or even to have directly participated in the event in order to develop PTSD.  In some cases, merely witnessing an event can lead to the disorder.  It is important to note that not everyone who experiences trauma will develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder just like not everyone who has the same experience will respond in the same way.

One theory about why some people develop PTSD has to do with our bodies fight or flight response, the chemical reaction triggered by fear or danger.  This physiological response is meant to enable us to protect ourselves and respond in critical survival situations.  But in some people, a traumatic event disrupts this response, causing the same kind of chemical reaction in circumstances where it isn’t necessarily warranted.  This can lead to feelings of anxiety, severe stress, fear, and danger when there is no external cause of those feelings.

There are some risk factors that can elevate someone’s likelihood of developing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  These risk factors include previous experience with traumatic events, a history of mental illness, lack of social support after the event, and being injured as part of the event.    There are also factors that can make someone more resilient and thereby reduce their risk of PTSD including strong post-event support, feeling positive about how they handled the event, and specific coping strategies for dealing with stressful events.

What are the Symptoms of PTSD?

Regardless of when PTSD develops, there are some characteristic symptoms that develop after the experience.  People may experience any combination of these symptoms.

  • Nightmares
  • Flashbacks
  • Mental images of the event or it’s aftermath
  • Avoidance of people, places, or things that are reminders of the event
  • Unwillingness to talk about the event or discuss what happened
  • Emotional detachment
  • Edginess, irritability, and hyper-vigilance
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Depression and survivor guilt
  • Angry outbursts

While teens and older adolescents may show symptoms similar to adults, they may also act out and become disruptive and destructive.  In young children and some adolescents, PTSD can cause a different set of symptoms including bedwetting, forgetting how to speak, refusing to speak, repeatedly acting out the traumatic event, and having unusual separation anxiety from parents or other adults.

How is PTSD Diagnosed?

PTSD is diagnosed by a doctor, psychiatrist, or psychologist based on a personal interview.  In order to be diagnosed, a person must display a certain set of symptoms for at least one month.  The set of symptoms must include one symptom related to re-experiencing the event like nightmares or flashbacks.  They must also be experiencing at least three avoidance symptoms like refusing to talk about the event or to participate in any activity relating to the event.  Additionally, the person must suffer from at least two different symptoms showing hyper-arousal like irritability and edginess.

PTSD is treatable and sufferers can make a complete recovery but it doesn’t generally resolve without assistance.  PTSD is most commonly treated with counseling or therapy and in some circumstances medication to treat underlying depression or other conditions may be used to help mitigate the effects of the disorder.  If you are concerned that your teen or young child may be suffering from PTSD, schedule an appointment with their doctor to rule out any medical causes of their symptoms and get a referral for a qualified practitioner.