PTSD in Teens: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

Adolescence is a time of significant growth, self-discovery, and exploration. However, for some teenagers, this period can also come with unique challenges and experiences that may lead to the development of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is a complex mental health condition that can affect young individuals who have been exposed to or experienced a traumatic event. 

The causes of PTSD in teens can result from experiencing traumatic events such as physical or sexual assault, witnessing violence, experiencing natural disasters, or enduring severe accidents.

The symptoms of PTSD in teens may include persistent and distressing memories or nightmares of the traumatic event, heightened emotional reactivity, avoidance of reminders, difficulty concentrating, changes in mood and sleep patterns, increased irritability, and hypervigilance.

Treatment options for PTSD in teens often include evidence-based therapies such as trauma-focused cognitive-behavioral therapy, medications like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) to alleviate symptoms and improve overall mental health, and other holistic treatment approaches.

What is PTSD?

PTSD stands for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. It is a mental health condition that can develop in some individuals after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. Traumatic events that can lead to PTSD include but are not limited to, military combat, natural disasters, serious accidents, physical or sexual assault, or any event that involves a threat to one’s life or safety.

People with PTSD often experience a range of symptoms that can be grouped into four main categories:

  • Intrusive thoughts
  • Avoidance
  • Negative changes in mood and cognition
  • Hyperarousal and reactivity

It’s important to note that not everyone who experiences a traumatic event develops PTSD, and the severity and duration of symptoms can vary between individuals. It is a serious condition that requires expert attention from a mental health specialist.

What are the Causes of PTSD

What are the Causes of PTSD in Teens?

The primary cause of PTSD in teens is experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. Traumatic events that can lead to the development of PTSD include:

  • Combat exposure: Military personnel who have served in war zones or experienced combat-related situations are at higher risk of developing PTSD.
  • Physical or sexual assault: Survivors of assault, whether it is domestic violence, sexual assault, or other forms of physical violence, may develop PTSD.
  • Natural disasters: Survivors of natural disasters such as earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, or fires can develop PTSD due to the overwhelming and life-threatening nature of these events.
  • Accidents: People who have been involved in serious accidents, such as car crashes or industrial accidents, may develop PTSD as a result of the trauma and the potential for life-threatening injuries.
  • Childhood trauma: Children who experience abuse, neglect, or other traumatic events during their formative years are at risk of developing PTSD that can persist into adulthood.
  • Witnessing violence: Individuals who witness or are exposed to violence, either in a personal or professional capacity, may develop PTSD. This can include witnessing violence in the community, in the workplace, or as a first responder.
  • Other traumatic events: Other traumatic events that can lead to PTSD include experiencing a life-threatening illness or injury, being a victim of terrorism, or experiencing a sudden and unexpected loss of a loved one.

The development of PTSD is influenced by various factors, including a person’s vulnerability, the severity of the trauma, the duration of the event, the availability of support systems, and other personal and environmental factors.

What can trigger PTSD in Teens?

PTSD in teens can be triggered by a variety of factors, including:

  • Direct reminders of the traumatic event
  • Internal triggers
  • Environmental cues
  • Anniversaries or significant dates
  • Sensory stimuli
  • Emotional or psychological stress

It’s important to note that triggers can vary from person to person, and what may trigger PTSD symptoms in one individual may not have the same effect on another. Treatment for PTSD often involves identifying triggers and developing strategies to manage and cope with them effectively.

Signs and Symptoms of PTSD in Teens

As mentioned earlier, the signs and symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can vary among individuals, but they generally fall into four categories. Here are some common signs and symptoms:

1. Intrusive thoughts and memories

Distressing and recurrent thoughts, memories, or nightmares related to the traumatic event. These thoughts can be intrusive and cause significant distress.

2. Avoidance behaviors

Avoiding people, places, activities, or situations that remind the individual of the traumatic event. This can include avoiding conversations about the event or repressing memories associated with it.

3. Negative changes in mood and cognition

Feelings of fear, guilt, shame, anger, or sadness that persist beyond the initial trauma. Negative thoughts about oneself or the world, a loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities, and difficulty experiencing positive emotions are also common symptoms.

4. Changes in arousal and reactivity

Being easily startled or feeling constantly on edge. Hypervigilance (being overly alert to potential threats), irritability, angry outbursts, difficulty concentrating, and problems with sleep (insomnia or nightmares) are often experienced.

5. Emotional and physical reactions

Experiencing intense emotional and physical reactions when exposed to reminders of the traumatic event. This can include rapid heartbeat, sweating, trembling, nausea, and feeling overwhelmed or panicked.

6. Cognitive and mood changes

Difficulty concentrating, memory problems, and negative changes in beliefs or expectations about oneself, others, or the world. It may also involve feelings of detachment from others or a persistent sense of a shortened future.

7. Hyperarousal symptoms

Hyperarousal symptoms in PTSD include heightened startle response, hypervigilance, difficulty sleeping, irritability, and aggression. These symptoms reflect a persistent state of increased physiological and psychological activation, characterized by an ongoing sense of threat and an inability to relax or feel safe.

Some of these symptoms may appear in these forms:

  • Recurring distressing dreams or nightmares related to the traumatic event.
  • Flashbacks, where the individual feels as if they are re-experiencing the traumatic event.
  • Feeling emotionally numb or detached from others.
  • Avoiding activities, places, or people that remind them of the trauma.
  • Memory problems and difficulty recalling specific details of the traumatic event.
  • Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities or a diminished sense of pleasure.
  • Feelings of guilt, self-blame, or shame related to the traumatic event.
  • Difficulty trusting others or forming close relationships.
  • Hypervigilance or being constantly on guard for potential threats.
  • Self-destructive behaviors, such as substance abuse or reckless behavior.
  • Physical symptoms, such as headaches, gastrointestinal problems, or chronic pain.
  • Feelings of hopelessness, despair, or a negative outlook on the future.
  • Social isolation or withdrawal from family and friends.
  • Irritability, anger, or outbursts of aggression.
  • Impaired concentration and difficulty focusing on tasks.

It’s important to note that these symptoms can vary in intensity and duration. Not everyone with PTSD will experience all of these symptoms, and the severity can differ between individuals. 

What does a PTSD episode look like?

A PTSD episode, also known as a flashback, can vary in intensity and presentation from person to person. During a PTSD episode, an individual may re-experience aspects of the traumatic event as if it were happening in the present moment. Here are some common features of a PTSD episode:

  • Vivid and intrusive memories: The person may have intense, distressing, and detailed recollections of the traumatic event. These memories can be triggered by various reminders, such as sights, sounds, smells, or even internal emotional states.
  • Dissociation: Some individuals may experience a sense of detachment from reality during a PTSD episode. They may feel as if they are watching the traumatic event unfold from outside their body, or they may experience a sense of unreality or disconnection from their surroundings.
  • Flashbacks: A flashback is a hallmark symptom of PTSD. It involves feeling as though the traumatic event is happening again in real time. The person may have vivid sensory perceptions, emotional responses, and physical sensations associated with the original trauma.
  • Physical and emotional distress: During a PTSD episode, individuals may exhibit signs of heightened physiological arousal, such as increased heart rate, rapid breathing, sweating, trembling, or a sense of impending doom. They may also experience intense fear, panic, anxiety, anger, or sadness.
  • Impaired functioning: The individual’s ability to function in their current environment may be significantly disrupted during a PTSD episode. They may struggle to maintain focus, engage in conversation, or carry out daily activities.

How does a person with PTSD behave?

The behavioral manifestations of PTSD can include avoidance of trauma reminders, social withdrawal, hypervigilance, exaggerated startle response, irritability/anger, self-destructive behaviors, sleep disturbances, and emotional numbing. However, it’s important to recognize that these behaviors can vary from person to person.

Side Effects of PTSD in Teens

Teens with PTSD may experience a range of side effects that can impact different aspects of their lives. Some common side effects of PTSD in teens include:

  • Emotional difficulties: Teens with PTSD may struggle with intense and unpredictable emotions. They may experience frequent mood swings, irritability, anger outbursts, or emotional numbness.
  • Behavioral changes: PTSD can lead to changes in behavior. Teens may engage in risky behaviors, self-isolation, withdrawal from activities or relationships, or exhibit disruptive or aggressive behavior.
  • Academic problems: PTSD can interfere with a teen’s ability to concentrate, focus, and perform well in school. They may have difficulties with memory, organization, and completing assignments.
  • Sleep disturbances: Teens with PTSD may have difficulties falling asleep, staying asleep, or experiencing frequent nightmares or night terrors. This can result in fatigue, daytime sleepiness, and impaired functioning.
  • Social difficulties: PTSD can impact a teen’s social relationships. They may have a reduced interest in socializing, isolate themselves from friends and family, or have difficulties forming or maintaining relationships.
  • Substance abuse: Some teens with PTSD may turn to substances like alcohol or drugs as a way to cope with their symptoms. Substance abuse can exacerbate the negative effects of PTSD and lead to additional problems.
  • Physical health problems: PTSD can contribute to physical health issues in teens. They may experience headaches, stomachaches, muscle tension, or other stress-related physical symptoms.
  • Impaired self-esteem and self-image: Teens with PTSD may struggle with negative thoughts about themselves, feelings of guilt or shame, and have a distorted self-image. They may blame themselves for the traumatic event or feel a persistent sense of worthlessness.

If you suspect that a teenager is experiencing PTSD, it’s crucial to seek professional help from a mental health provider for an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment.

Can a person with PTSD have a normal life?

Yes, with proper treatment, support, and self-care, individuals with PTSD can lead fulfilling lives despite the challenges posed by the condition. Treatment, a strong support system, and self-care practices are key factors in managing symptoms and improving well-being.

Treatments: How to Help Teens with PTSD

Treatments: How to Help Teens with PTSD

Helping teens with PTSD typically involves a multi-faceted approach that may include the following treatments:

1. Psychotherapy

Evidence-based therapies like cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or trauma-focused CBT can be effective in treating PTSD in teens. These therapies help teens understand and change negative thought patterns, manage distressing emotions, and develop healthy coping strategies.

2. Medication

In some cases, medication may be prescribed to help manage specific symptoms of PTSD, such as depression, anxiety, or sleep disturbances. Medication should be prescribed and monitored by a qualified healthcare professional.

3. Supportive environment

Creating a supportive and safe environment is crucial for teens with PTSD. This involves providing understanding, empathy, and validation, and avoiding judgment or minimizing their experiences. Encouraging open communication and active listening can also be helpful.

4. Education

Educating both the teen and their caregivers about PTSD can increase understanding and reduce stigma. Learning about the symptoms, triggers, and available treatments can empower teens and their families to actively participate in the recovery process.

5. Self-care and coping skills

Teaching teens healthy coping skills can help them manage and reduce the impact of symptoms. This may include relaxation techniques, stress management strategies, self-soothing activities, and promoting healthy lifestyle habits such as exercise, nutrition, and sleep hygiene.

6. Peer support and group therapy

Engaging in group therapy or support groups with peers who have experienced similar traumas can provide a sense of connection, validation, and support. Sharing experiences and learning from others can be beneficial.

It’s important to involve a qualified mental health professional who specializes in working with teens and PTSD to develop an individualized treatment plan based on their specific needs and circumstances.

What happens if PTSD is left untreated in a child?

If PTSD is left untreated in a child, it can lead to ongoing distress, academic difficulties, social and relationship problems, increased risk of other mental health issues, physical health consequences, and long-term negative impacts on their well-being and quality of life. Seeking professional help is important to address and treat PTSD in children.

How do you calm someone with PTSD?

To calm someone with PTSD, you can try the following approaches:

  • Create a safe environment
  • Practice grounding techniques
  • Offer reassurance and support
  • Respect boundaries
  • Encourage self-care
  • Encourage professional help

Remember, everyone with PTSD may respond differently, so it’s important to be patient, understanding, and flexible in your approach. If the person’s distress intensifies or they are at risk of harm, it is essential to contact emergency services or a mental health professional immediately.

What not to do to someone with PTSD?

When supporting someone with PTSD, it is important to avoid certain actions or behaviors that could potentially worsen their symptoms or distress. Here are some things to avoid:

  • Minimizing or invalidating their experiences
  • Pressuring them to talk about their trauma
  • Using judgment or blame
  • Offering unsolicited advice or quick fixes
  • Encouraging avoidance or isolation
  • Reacting with anger or frustration

Do not add to their stress for any reason. If your loved one is having a PTSD episode, provide all the forms of relief you can and avoid being insensitive to their feelings.

Can PTSD and Drug Abuse Co-occur

PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) and drug abuse can co-occur. This condition is known as a dual diagnosis or co-occurring disorders. Individuals with PTSD may turn to drugs or alcohol as a way to self-medicate and alleviate the distressing symptoms of the disorder, such as anxiety, flashbacks, or insomnia. Conversely, substance abuse can exacerbate or even contribute to the development of PTSD symptoms, creating a complex interplay between the two conditions.

How to prevent PTSD in teens

While it’s not always possible to prevent PTSD, some measures can help reduce the risk or mitigate the impact of traumatic experiences in teens. Here are some strategies you can implement:

  • Create a supportive and nurturing environment: Foster a safe and supportive home environment that promotes open communication, emotional expression, and healthy relationships. Encourage a sense of belonging, trust, and security.
  • Teach stress management and coping skills: Help teens develop effective coping strategies to manage stress and build resilience. This can include teaching relaxation techniques, problem-solving skills, and healthy ways to express emotions.
  • Promote healthy relationships and social support: Encourage positive social connections and healthy relationships with family, friends, and supportive peers. Strong social support can act as a protective factor against the development of PTSD.
  • Educate about trauma and its effects: Provide age-appropriate education on trauma, its potential effects, and common reactions. This knowledge can help teens understand their own experiences or those of others, reducing the sense of confusion or self-blame.
  • Teach healthy boundaries and self-care: Help teens establish healthy boundaries and self-care practices. Encourage them to prioritize their mental, emotional, and physical well-being, and to recognize when they need to seek support or take breaks.
  • Address potential risk factors: Identify and address potential risk factors for trauma exposure, such as bullying, violence, or unstable living conditions. Advocate for safe environments and access to supportive resources.

Don’t forget that preventing PTSD entirely may not always be possible, as trauma can occur unexpectedly. However, by implementing these strategies, you can help promote resilience and support healthy coping mechanisms in teens.

Take Charge of Your Life With Bright Path

With our specialized programs and expert care at Bright Path, we offer a supportive and effective environment for teens recovering from PTSD. Our approach typically includes individualized treatment plans that focus on the unique needs of each adolescent.

These plans often incorporate evidence-based therapies such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which helps in understanding and changing negative thought patterns, and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), a technique especially effective in processing traumatic experiences. Bright Path is the ideal place for teens to heal from PTSD and regain their strength and confidence. Contact us now to start your healing journey.

Author: Shantel Sullivan Ed.D., LCSW
Dr. Shantel Sullivan, Ed.D., LCSW, serves as the CEO of Bright Path with a rich background in residential adolescent treatment, adult outpatient services, and academia, leveraging over a decade of licensed social work experience in New York and North Carolina. Her academic credentials include a BA in Sociology, an MSW and a graduate certificate in addictions counseling from the University of New England, culminating in a doctoral degree in Educational Leadership focused on transformational leadership. Beyond her clinical expertise, Dr. Sullivan contributes to the field as a national speaker, educator, and editor of the Bright Path Teen Mental Health Blog, committed to enhancing access to evidence-based mental health care for adolescents and their families.
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