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PTSD and Teen Development

Many people think of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, as a mental health condition that only affects military veterans or those who have either witnessed or suffered from acts of violence. That’s part of the story of this disease, but it’s not the whole picture: More teenagers are suffering from PTSD than many parents realize.

The traumatic events that may cause post-traumatic stress include war, sexual assault, terrorism, or natural disasters, but also lesser-known causes, such as domestic abuse, serious illness, witnessing a death, or incarceration in the criminal justice system. If an incident is life threatening and causes major physical, emotional, spiritual, or psychological harm, it could lead to PTSD.

Not everyone who experiences something traumatic will develop PTSD. But for those who do, the disorder can become all-consuming. This unhealthy pattern of thinking can develop months, or even years, after the traumatic event. The symptoms of PTSD in adolescents are the same symptoms found in adults. However, teens with this disorder don’t yet have the coping skills they need to deal with the situation. This makes it more likely that teens with this condition will have emotional and developmental difficulties. PTSD can make it difficult, if not impossible, for teenagers to engage with the world around them. Until the person's mind is healed, he or she is trapped in a pattern of fear and avoidance.

PTSD symptoms are generally grouped into four types: intrusive memories, avoidance, negative changes in thinking and mood, and changes in physical and emotional reactions. Symptoms can vary over time or vary from person to person. Here is a guide to each category.

Symptoms of intrusive memories may include recurring and distressing memories of a traumatic event, or even reliving the event as if it were happening all over again. This is sometimes called flashbacks. Some patients have upsetting dreams about the event and severe emotional or physical reactions to things that remind them of the event.

Signs of avoidance are harder to spot. Someone who avoids thinking about the event or refuses to talk about it may have unresolved emotions about it. The same is true for someone who purposely avoids people, places, or activities that may remind them of the trauma they experienced.

Negative changes in thinking and mood can masquerade as several disorders, including depression. In individuals with PTSD, these changes can take the form of memory issues, especially not remembering important aspects of the traumatic event. PTSD sufferers may feel emotionally numb, take no interest in activities they once loved, be unable to experience positive emotions, and consistently have negative thoughts about themselves and the world around them. This leads to detachment from family and friends and difficulty maintaining close relationships.

Many PTSD patients also experience changes in physical and emotional reactions to everyday events. These are called “arousal symptoms” and are a very distinctive sign of PTSD. These symptoms can look like being easily startled, always being “on guard” for potential danger, and angry outbursts. Other arousal symptoms can include self-destructive behavior, like drinking too much or driving too fast, trouble sleeping, and trouble concentrating. A less-visible symptom in this category is overwhelming feelings of guilt and shame.

Children six years old and younger may show signs of PTSD by re-enacting the traumatic event, or even simply aspects of the event, through make-believe play. They may also have frightening dreams, even if those dreams don’t include parts of the traumatic event.

If these symptoms sound like your child, please seek out a mental health professional. A diagnosis of PTSD requires a psychological evaluation by a licensed professional. After a diagnosis, PTSD can be treated with talk therapy, experiential therapy, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), brain-spotting, medication, or a combination of any of these.


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