Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder In Teens

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is more common than you might think in teenagers. A wide range of experiences can cause PTSD, and people react differently to the same trauma. That means PTSD can be a complex disorder to understand. 

Here, we will explain how traumas can occur, how teens may respond to PTSD and potential treatment options. 

Have you considered clinical trials for Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?

We make it easy for you to participate in a clinical trial for Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and get access to the latest treatments not yet widely available - and be a part of finding a cure.

What is trauma, and how does it trigger PTSD in teens?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) occurs in children and teenagers after they witness a threatening event or series of events.¹

This can include a life-threatening event such as a school shooting, motor vehicle accident, natural disaster, or war. It can also occur after an event that threatens or causes physical harm, like violence, sexual assault, or physical abuse. 

For teenagers, traumas can also include other factors related to their environment. Teens are often at the mercy of their home or school environment, so when these environments become unhealthy, it can lead to PTSD. 

Witnessing chronic substance abuse, domestic violence, a traumatic divorce, serious illness, or struggles with bullying can also trigger PTSD in teens. These traumas can severely impact their mental well-being and social development. 

Does trauma always cause PTSD?

Trauma doesn’t always cause PTSD. Many adults in the US will experience at least one traumatic event.²

Around 1.8% of men and 5.2% of women will receive a PTSD diagnosis every year.²

How do you recognize PTSD in teens? Common PTSD symptoms and how it differs from adults

PTSD in teens is different from PTSD in adults or children. Younger children express their PTSD as crying, screaming, or becoming overly attached and afraid of being alone. However, this isn’t usually the case with teenagers.³

If your teen is showing signs of feeling depressed and alone, like sleeping more often, being unresponsive, or displaying eating disorder or self-harming behaviors after an incident, they might be developing PTSD. 

Teenagers are more likely to begin abusing alcohol and drugs or taking sexual risks when dealing with PTSD. Teens can also feel scared, angry, irritable, or withdrawn in response to PTSD. 

It’s easy to confuse PTSD with other disorders. Generally, a teenager will receive a PTSD diagnosis if they:

  • Relive the event over and over

  • Have a lack of positive emotions

  • Are irritable

  • Have angry outbursts

  • Feel or act hopeless or withdrawn

  • Avoid associations with the event for longer than one month⁴

Long-term effects of PTSD in teens

Long-term PTSD can result in many different outcomes for teens. These can include behavioral problems such as an inability to form bonds with others, inappropriate sexual behaviors, or extreme aggression.

It can also result in anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and self-harming behaviors.⁵

PTSD and untreated trauma could even cause your teen to develop borderline personality disorder (BPD). Of adults diagnosed with BPD, 30-70% of them have had an episode of PTSD at some point in their lifetime.⁶ ⁷

It is not fully understood how PTSD may lead to BPD. Still, studies suggest this is all due to the nervous system activating inappropriately, causing the teenager to become alarmed due to the body misreading perfectly normal interactions as harmful. 

Childhood survivors of trauma can also have learning problems because of behavioral issues. They might be more likely to have more suspensions from school. They also have increased involvement in child welfare or juvenile justice systems. 

Adults with PTSD from childhood have different brain structures, meaning their fight-or-flight reflex can activate quickly and unexpectedly. As a result, they may also have an increased risk of mental health conditions and long-term diseases like heart disease and diabetes.

Researchers are still exploring the association between mental health issues and long-term conditions.

PTSD in children results in more comorbidities. This means that children and teenagers with PTSD are more likely to have diagnoses of other mental illnesses (such as depression and anxiety) than those without PTSD.⁸ 

How common is PTSD in teenagers? 

PTSD is present in around 5% of American adolescents aged 13–18. 

An estimated 1.5% of teens have a severe impairment (a strong negative impact on their daily lives). Female teenagers have a higher rate of PTSD, with 8% of females compared to 2.3% of males. 17–18-year-olds have the highest rate of PTSD at 7% of the population. 

How is PTSD in teens treated?

If your teen is dealing with PTSD, they aren’t alone. Many sources of support are available for you and your teenager. 

The first step for treatment is to see a healthcare professional. The doctor will diagnose your teen, allowing them to connect with parents, friends, or school support staff to feel comfortable and safe. A supportive system is a key to PTSD recovery.

If your teen is younger, explain that they aren’t responsible for the trauma they endured. Younger children can sometimes blame themselves for things outside of their control.

Many teenagers benefit from cognitive behavior therapy (CBT). This therapy helps teens recognize physical signs of their mental state and behavioral patterns. They can target and change these patterns through techniques that ‘rewire’ the brain. 

CBT can reduce the nightmares that often plague children and teenagers with PTSD. One study on the impact of CBT on PTSD nightmares resulted in most participants curing their PTSD within 20 weekly sessions. Some participants still had nightmares but no longer had PTSD.⁹

How can I help myself? 

Some people with PTSD struggle to accept how they acted during a crisis. This can cause guilt and add to the struggle of moving on, particularly in teenagers. It can be hard for them to comprehend just how difficult their situation was. 

You can create a coping strategy from a support network of friends and family to manage your symptoms. It’s also important to recognize that your behavior changes during a crisis: Your body switches survival mode on to protect you. 

The lowdown

Unfortunately, PTSD is common among teenagers in the US. Understanding the signs and symptoms of PTSD and seeking help is the first step. Your teen's doctor will provide strategies for managing and treating this condition. Cognitive behavioral therapy can help teenagers heal from trauma.

Have you considered clinical trials for Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?

We make it easy for you to participate in a clinical trial for Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and get access to the latest treatments not yet widely available - and be a part of finding a cure.

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