The 3 Types of Trauma Your Teen Can Experience

February 22, 2022

As parents, caregivers, or guardians, we place the highest priority on making sure our children are happy, healthy, and thriving. The years they are in our care seem to fly by, and the time we have to provide guidance and support feels quite limited in some cases. Parents try their best to protect their children from suffering, challenges, and trauma as they grow older. 


But unfortunately, traumatic events (often outside of parental control) still occur. These events can lead to emotional and behavioral challenges for adolescents and teens. Treatment for teen trauma and teen mental health challenges requires specialized trauma-focused treatment at a program like Hillcrest, where providers understand teen mental health. As part of a trauma-focused teen treatment plan, your teen can learn healthier, safer ways to manage and overcome trauma. 


What is Trauma? 

Before it is possible to understand various types of trauma, their impact on teens, and the best types of treatment, it is important to understand what trauma is. The American Psychological Association defines trauma as “an emotional response to a terrible event.” Depending on the person, the type of trauma, and the symptoms produced by the traumatic event, the emotional response to trauma may include feelings like anger, fear, denial, or shock. 


Everyone experiences trauma differently. Although two people may share the same traumatic event, they will inevitably have different reactions. While one person may struggle with difficult emotions for a short period, others may go on to develop and be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. 


3 Common Types of Teen Trauma

There are many types of trauma, but three are commonly seen among teens. These include acute trauma, chronic trauma, and complex trauma. In general, trauma is characterized based on the type of event one experiences. 


Acute Trauma

Acute trauma occurs as a result of a single or isolated event. Although there has been less research on acute or “single incident trauma” than chronic trauma or other forms of trauma, there is significant evidence that acute trauma still leads to overwhelming and complex symptoms. For some, depending on the severity of the acute trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health concerns can develop.


Acute trauma develops out of a “one-time event.” Common examples of situations that may cause acute trauma are car accidents, mass shootings, significant physical injury, natural disasters, physical assault, terrorist attacks, and sexual assault or rape. 


Chronic Trauma

Chronic trauma is a type of trauma that develops out of repeated trauma or a prolonged traumatic event. Unlike acute trauma, significant research surrounds the adverse physical and emotional impacts of chronic trauma. Several studies suggest youth and adolescents exposed to chronic trauma are at an increased risk for legal challenges as juveniles, poor academic progress, and mental health challenges. 


Chronic trauma evolves out of repeated trauma or the type of trauma that lasts for days, weeks, or longer. Examples of chronic trauma include active combat, homelessness, chronic illness, domestic abuse, witnessing ongoing abuse of a loved one, community violence, and childhood neglect.


Complex Trauma

Complex trauma is similar to chronic trauma in that both evolve out of repeated or prolonged traumatic experiences. However, teens who struggle with complex trauma also experience long-term emotional and physical symptoms stemming from chronic trauma. While children and teens experience complex trauma, they also have severe and sometimes overwhelming emotional challenges that affect their feelings of safety and comfort, especially in personal relationships. 


Complex trauma in children and teens often includes a combination of several circumstances or risk factors. Examples may be verbal and physical abuse, sexual harassment or abuse, lack of attachment to parents or caregivers, extreme financial instability (in the family), mental health problems (individual or within the family), homelessness, ongoing interaction with the foster care system, abandonment (actual or perceived) and prolonged neglect. 


Complex trauma can be challenging to recognize in some instances as some children do not show outward or visible symptoms when interacting with others such as classmates or friends. In other cases, children with complex trauma may bully others, struggle academically or experiment with drugs and alcohol to manage their symptoms and “dull” pain and discomfort. 


Symptoms of Trauma in Teens

Everyone who experiences trauma reacts in different ways. It is important to note that not everyone who experiences teen trauma will develop post-traumatic stress disorder. In fact, only 3% of adults in the United States have PTSD at any point in time. If your teen has experienced trauma, it is vital to be compassionate, sensitive, and open-minded as they navigate their emotions. There will be good days and off days, and that is ok. If you are unsure how to provide support and guidance for a teen who has experienced trauma, contact us at Hillcrest to learn more about how teen-focused care can help your teen learn more about trauma recovery. 


The days, weeks, and months after trauma occurs are often filled with different and varying emotions. Depending on the type of trauma and its severity, your teen may experience some or all of the below emotions at some time. Teens struggling with complex trauma may struggle daily with painful emotions and physical challenges. Below are typical examples of difficulties that can evolve out of trauma. 


Shock or “feeling numb”

Feelings of numbness are common after trauma. Often, this is a sign that your teen is “in shock” after experiencing a painful or traumatic event. It is not uncommon to struggle to process the event itself and the emotions that stem from it immediately after. For some, shock is a protective factor that keeps emotions at bay for a time. 



Denial is another protective factor teens may use after trauma. Your teen may deny the severity of the event (“it wasn’t a big deal”) or make it seem like the event did not and does not affect them (“it’s in the past”). Denial is a way for your teen to convince themselves that the situation was not traumatic, even when it likely was. 



Paranoia is a common symptom that accompanies trauma. It often occurs because someone who has experienced trauma worries that someone or something will harm them again. As a result, your teen might become overly alert (hypervigilant) to the people and environment around them. They may also go out of their way to avoid people, places, or situations that remind them of their trauma. 



Depression frequently co-occurs with trauma. Depending on the person and the severity of their trauma, depression symptoms may range from feelings of sadness to overwhelming feelings of worthlessness and harmful negative self-talk. Depression can impact your teen’s ability to heal and move forward from trauma. Talk of self-harm, suicidal thoughts, and suicidal actions can occur with severe post-trauma depression. 


Self-harming behavior

Self-harm is the term used to describe any intentional act of hurting yourself. Typical examples of self-harming actions include cutting, burning, hitting, or inserting dangerous objects into oneself. Most of the time, a teen’s self-harming behaviors aren’t meant to be life-threatening, but they can pose serious, even fatal, risks. Over time, the repeated behavior can become difficult to stop.



Flashbacks occur when your teen continually (and involuntarily) experiences the trauma after it occurs. Depending on the severity of flashbacks, they can become overwhelming and debilitating. Despite knowing the trauma has ended, flashbacks create the feeling of being retraumatized over and over. Flashbacks can worsen panic, anxiety, and depression. 



Anger is a common emotion experienced after trauma occurs. Trauma survivors are often angry and upset about the event or situation that caused trauma. This is especially true if the source of their trauma was a friend or loved one. Your teen may feel a deep resentment, even hatred, towards the perpetrator of their trauma. This may lead to your teen lashing out at others in anger. 


Increased drug and/or alcohol use

Research indicates trauma and addiction frequently co-occur. Some studies suggest up to two-thirds of people who have post-traumatic stress disorder also meet the criteria for a substance use disorder. It is common for teens (and adults) struggling with trauma to turn to drugs and alcohol to self-medicate their symptoms. In time, this can lead to addiction. 


Problems with personal relationships and friendships

After experiencing trauma, your teen may withdraw, isolate, or lash out at their friends and loved ones. These actions are rarely intentional as they stem from painful and challenging emotions linked to the trauma. Unfortunately, they can create tension within the family and lead to difficulties forging and maintaining friendships. It is important to remember that everyone manages trauma differently. Therefore, even if two people share the same traumatic experience, it is normal for each to handle their emotions differently. Sadly, if coping styles appear to clash or are directly at odds, problems may arise within the relationship.  


Treatment for Teen Trauma

There is no ideal or perfect single approach to treating teen trauma. What is effective for one teen may not be for another. You should contact a teen-focused residential treatment facility to develop the best plan for your teen. However, a few trauma-informed care approaches used as part of a trauma care plan include drug and alcohol treatment, group counseling, individualized counseling, and behavioral therapies. Your teen’s therapist at Hillcrest will examine their history to identify the sources of trauma. Chronic, acute, and complex traumas may require different treatment methods to ensure the best opportunity for positive treatment outcomes. 


If your teen struggles with trauma, it is important to contact a skilled treatment center like Hillcrest to learn whether teen-focused trauma therapy can help them heal. Our caring and compassionate team specializes in teen mental health care. Let us help your teen begin their journey towards trauma recovery and lasting health. Contact us today to learn more about how we can help.

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