Vicarious trauma is a specific form of traumatization that is caused by secondhand exposure to traumatic events. Hence, simply hearing about or watching footage of such an event can catalyze vicarious trauma. Teenagers are especially vulnerable to vicarious traumatization, which is also known as secondary traumatic stress.
The spate of national tragedies in recent decades has led to an increase in vicarious trauma. With the ubiquitous presence of the Internet and mobile technologies, teens and young adults have constant access to news and firsthand accounts of horrific events. As a result, secondhand exposure to terrorist acts, mass shootings, and natural disasters has risen exponentially.
Most teenagers who are indirectly exposed to trauma have an immediate reaction of discomfort or fear. However, they are usually able to recover and move forward without continued distress. But some teens suffer from the range of additional symptoms that characterize vicarious trauma. This is more likely if a close friend or family member was directly involved.
The Spread of Vicarious Trauma in the United States
In the past, vicarious traumatization mainly affected people in helping professions, such as rescue workers, police officers, and therapists. However, with the increase in media coverage of traumatic events, vicarious traumatization has become more common.
For example, after the Boston Marathon bombing, a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) found that increased media exposure is directly correlated to stress-related symptoms in people who closely follow such stories.
Given this danger, many parents want to learn more about the signs and symptoms of vicarious trauma in teenagers. Moreover, the effects of vicarious stress often worsen over time. Thus, training and vicarious prevention techniques are vital for anyone working with this population.
Vicarious Trauma Prevention for Vulnerable Adolescents
Adolescents are particularly susceptible to external influences. And that means they may be more likely to experience trauma and related issues. A study examining the prevalence of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and suicide found that PTSD is more common in adolescents than adults.
In addition, teens with existing mental health challenges, poor emotional regulation skills, and weak support systems are more vulnerable to vicarious trauma. Moreover, females are more likely than males to experience secondary PTSD.
Therefore, prevention strategies are necessary to protect teens and young adults from vicarious PTSD. Here are five vicarious trauma prevention techniques:
- Raising awareness about vicarious trauma and secondary survivor’s guilt
- Limiting media and social media consumption about tragic events
- Promoting positive self-care, like good nutrition, exercise, and sleep
- Connecting teens to their community and what is happening around them
- Empowering teens by providing opportunities to help others.
However, even with these prevention techniques, vicarious trauma remains quite common. According to the American Psychological Association, as many as 85 percent of youth are exposed—directly or indirectly—to violence or other traumatic events. Some of these teens will develop signs of vicarious traumatization.
Teen Reactions to Vicarious Traumatization
Vicarious trauma can produce both physical and emotional reactions. Here are the most common signs of vicarious trauma in teenagers:
- Numbness and shock
- Feeling helpless and sad
- Anger and a sense of guilt
- Increased anxiety, leading to mood swings and irritability
- Social isolation, including emotional distance from family and friends
- Fear of similar events happening to them in the future
- Difficulty breathing, being short of breath
- Muscle and joint pain for no apparent reason
- Increased heart rate, panic attacks, racing pulse
- Hypochondria, an increased focus on medical concerns
- Elevated startle response, exaggerated reflex reaction
- Desire to take revenge
- Disturbances in sleep and eating habits.
Over time, vicarious traumatization can progress into teen PTSD. Hence, the long-term effects include suicidal thoughts, an increase in risk-taking behaviors, and difficulty forming relationships with peers.
Furthermore, the symptoms of vicarious trauma include a sense of survivor’s guilt. Although they are not actual survivors, teenagers now feel like survivors due to their secondhand experience of those events through the media.
Treatment and Support for Teen Vicarious Traumatization
A number of trauma treatment approaches can help teens process the weight of vicarious stress. These include clinical modalities such as Trauma-focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Cognitive Processing Therapy, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR).
In addition, teens can build new, healthy habits to cope with vicarious trauma:
- Relaxation techniques, such as breathing exercises and meditation
- Peaceful contact with nature, like a walk in a forest or on the beach
- Processing the trauma and its aftermath in support groups or with caring friends and relatives
- Journaling about their experience as a way to make sense of their story
- Unplugging regularly from social media and limiting exposure to news updates
- Making daily gratitude lists that help them appreciate the good in their world.
Untreated, vicarious trauma will often become worse, causing future difficulties. However, with treatment, teens can overcome the difficulties presented by vicarious traumatization, and proceed on a path of healing and happiness.
Minerva Pediatrica. 2010 Aug;62(4):363–70.
PNAS. 2014 Jan;111(1): 93–98.