Moving Forward After Tragedy: Teen Trauma, Grief, and PTSD
Violent tragedies, such as the mass shootings in Sandy Hook, Las Vegas, and Parkland leave deep psychological wounds in their wake.
After tragic events, those who were impacted, directly or indirectly, may experience lasting effects. In addition, this is true even if they were not physically harmed. Random, violent events weaken our sense of personal safety and security.
For teens, the psychological trauma of tragedy can linger for years. Furthermore, the symptoms of trauma can grow worse if they are not addressed promptly.
Traumatic Stress and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
A single traumatic event is called an “acute trauma.” An acute trauma can lead to traumatic stress and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Traumatic stress can last days, weeks, or months following the event.
Additionally, a traumatic event is typically an event that results in or threatens death or injury. Moreover, experts define tragedy as an event or circumstance that creates intense distress or sadness.
“Over the course of even a brief event, a child or adolescent may go through a variety of complicated sensations, thoughts, feelings, and physical responses that are frightening in and of themselves and contribute to [their] sense of being overwhelmed.”
—National Child Traumatic Stress Network
Causes include accidents, natural disasters, fires, crimes, childhood abuse, the loss of a parent or other family member, and other tragedies and childhood trauma. These traumatic experiences are accompanied by feelings of fear, horror, and/or helplessness.
Ongoing traumatic events, such as exposure to childhood abuse, domestic violence, or gang violence, are called “chronic trauma.” Both acute and chronic trauma can lead to PTSD.
For stress to be considered PTSD, symptoms must last more than a month and be severe enough to interfere with daily functioning. The signs include the following:
- Panic attacks
- Confusion and inability to make decisions
- Difficulty sleeping
- Finding it hard to enjoy activities that were once pleasurable
- Irritable or aggressive behavior
- Emotional numbness
- Constantly feeling on edge
- Avoiding people, places, or situations that trigger memories of the traumatic event
- Difficulty focusing
- Suicidal thoughts.
Furthermore, the US Department of Veteran Affairs estimates that depression is three to five times more likely to occur in trauma victims who develop PTSD than in the general population. Substance abuse is also more common among people living with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Teen PTSD Statistics
According to statistics, PTSD affects 7.7 million American adults each year. It is most commonly associated with military veterans who have been exposed to combat.
However, it also occurs in children and teens. A national study showed that 39 percent of American teens report witnessing violence, which can lead to PTSD.
In fact, teens may be more likely to have PTSD. In one study, researchers at Columbia University and the New York State Psychiatric Institute reported that PTSD is more common in adolescents than adults.
According to the National Center for PTSD, as many as 40 percent of children and teens go through at least one trauma. Of these, up to 15 percent of girls and 6 percent of boys develop PTSD.
Rates of PTSD are higher for certain types of trauma survivors. Children and teens who go through the most severe traumas have the highest levels of symptoms. More than 75 percent of children who experience a school shooting and approximately 90 percent of children who are sexually abused develop PTSD.
Teen PTSD and Substance Abuse
PTSD symptoms in teens are similar to those of adults. However, teens are more likely than younger children or adults to exhibit impulsive and aggressive behaviors.
After a violent incident or other traumatic event, teens are also more likely to self-medicate with alcohol or drugs. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network reports that more than 50 percent of teens with traumatic stress use drugs or alcohol to deal with painful emotions.
The Long-Term Effects of Teen PTSD
Over time, traumatic stress can impact every area of a teenager’s life. Teens with PTSD use most of their mental and emotional energy to deal with or suppress the symptoms. Hence, they struggle with daily functioning and relationships. Consequently, here are some of the long-term effects of teen PTSD:
- Increased risk-taking behavior
- Difficulty focusing and thinking abstractly
- Poor academic performance
- Inability to form relationships with peers
- Resisting challenges due to fear.
Therefore, teens with PTSD are unable to properly grow, mature, and learn.
Treatment Approaches for PTSD
Effective PTSD treatment approaches include:
- Trauma-focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
- Cognitive Processing Therapy
- Dialectical Behavioral Therapy
- Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
- Play therapy, used to treat young children with PTSD who are not able to deal with the trauma directly
- Comprehensive Resource Model: a new approach using elements of psychology, spirituality, neurobiology, and body-based (somatic) techniques.
PTSD medication is sometimes used to treat symptoms. These medications are usually the same ones used to treat depression and anxiety. However, drug-free solutions for PTSD are equally or more effective.
Coping with Grief and Trauma
There are tools and practices that can help teens cope with the symptoms of grief and trauma. Here are a few.
Writing and Journaling
Writing about one’s experiences can be very helpful in coping with grief. Translating thoughts and feelings into written words supports healing and helps teens process trauma.
In one study, researchers compared the effect of EMDR with that of a therapeutic writing intervention. Participants included 103 children and adolescents, ages 8 to 18, who had experienced a single traumatic event. Both approaches were equally effective in reducing PTSD reactions, anxiety, depression, and behavioral problems. Furthermore, only a few hours of the intervention were necessary to produce these beneficial results.
Expressing one’s emotions through music, art, or dance can also help teens heal.
“Riding the Wave”
Teens who are feeling overwhelmed by stress, anxiety, or fear can try this tool for acknowledging and releasing their feelings. It’s called “riding the wave.”
- Pay attention to your breath and consciously make it slower and deeper.
- Relax your body, letting the muscles release from head to toes.
- Tune in to the feelings you are experiencing in your body and your mind.
- Observe what you are feeling with compassion and without judging yourself.
- Continue to let the feelings be there without pushing them away, as the wave recedes.
Making Authentic Connections
A support network helps teens heal from tragedy. Multiple studies have shown that social relationships improve mental and physical health. Such a network can include family, peers, and guidance counselors. Moreover, a support group for survivors of traumatic events can be helpful.
PSTD affects the nervous system, keeping it in constant fight-or-flight mode. However, researchers believe that yoga activates the relaxation response, via the vagus nerve. This is the nerve that helps control the parasympathetic nervous system. This theory suggests that yoga’s combination of slow movement and conscious breathing initiates a calming response in the nervous system. Consequently, it is beneficial for PTSD.
Reaching Out for Help
A mental health professional can provide support for teens with PTSD. Sometimes stigma or fear can prevent a teen from asking for help. It’s important for parents and other adults to monitor teens carefully after a traumatic event. Therefore, they can make sure that teens get the compassionate support they need in order to heal.
J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 2017 Jun 28.
Med Hypotheses. 2012 May;78(5):571-9.
US Department of Veterans Affairs: National Center for PTSD
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network
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