PTSD: Signs of Teen Trouble

November 21, 2019

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, more commonly referred to as PTSD, is a disorder commonly discussed in the military communities. PTSD was first coined a term in the 1970’s as veterans returned from the Vietnam War. They displayed what many may refer to as “classic symptoms” such as flashbacks, nightmares, and other behavioral concerns. These symptoms were terrifying to families who were awaiting the return of their loved ones.

Can you imagine the excitement that came from knowing your husband or partner was returning safely from war? You can picture these family members preparing parties, meals, and planning activities. These excited veteran families were not prepared to handle the aggression, substance use, and disassociation that returned with their loved ones. PTSD tore families apart. It left these veterans homeless, using drugs and drinking alcohol, and struggling to get proper treatment. Many who returned safely died of suicide.

Trauma is terrible. This kind of trauma was horrific. As clinicians, we are grateful that PTSD was recognized during these years because there is better supports and services now. But, there is a misconception still that not just anyone can have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. This simply isn’t true. Anyone, even your teenager, can and likely is experiencing trauma. And, anyone will naturally reel from its effects.

Trauma is so widely experienced that there is now an entire classification of mental health disorders dedicated to the impact that it has on our health and wellness in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual: Trauma and Stressor Related Disorders.

Teenagers are often at heightened risk for PTSD because not only may they be experiencing trauma, they likely don’t know how to communicate it. They may be internalizing their experiences and their symptoms for fear of being different or judged. But, the truth is, that your teen may be experiencing the brutal impact of PTSD. As a parent it will help you to be aware of the symptoms so that you can recognize it in your child if it comes up. Only then can you get them appropriate treatment. That could include outpatient mental health services or inpatient residential services in many cases.

Let’s explore the symptoms of PTSD.

PTSD is a mental health disorder that occurs after an individual has personally experienced trauma or been witness to trauma. What that trauma is will be entirely up to the individual. We cannot judge or describe another person’s trauma. For one person, their PTSD could be set on by a car accident. Another person could have symptoms related to sexual assault. Another person could have PTSD because of being bullied at school. All experiences are different, will impact the individual differently, and present symptomology different. But, all are valid and should be treated.

As mentioned above, the way that PTSD presents itself will look different for every person and especially every teenager because they have so many other developmental things going on, but many of the following symptoms will be present. These are the symptoms to look out for when wondering if your child has PTSD.

Behavioral symptoms

A person’s behavior will likely be changed after the traumatic event, for at least a while. They may never return to their previous baseline, but they can establish a new and happy baseline. This typically takes a considerable amount of treatment. A person may experience agitation, irritability, be hostile towards others, isolate themselves, or engage in self-destructive behavior.

This may sound like the average teenager, so you may be wondering how you would know that your child is having PTSD symptoms and not just being a teen? We understand that concern. These symptoms will be above and beyond the average teenage hostility, irritability, and destructive behavior.

Let’s explore an example: a teenage boy has developed PTSD because of being severely bullied online. His bully is so mean that he considers suicide. The symptoms he displays are severe aggression to the point where some might consider him a bully. He starts fights at school and begins getting in trouble. His parents don’t know what to do to help him. They feel he is so out of control. He also has a severe fear of getting on the internet now because of the trauma of being bullied online.

This boy is displaying some of the classic angry symptoms. His PTSD is presenting as fear, destructive behavior, and agitation. He would benefit from intensive treatment programs such as residential treatment because he’s facing expulsion at school.

Psychological symptoms

Many people will have various psychological symptoms. These include flashbacks, fear, severe and chronic anxiety, and the inability to trust others. These are often the symptoms that we see in the movies. People waking up out of their sleep screaming or having a panic attack where they feel they are choking. People may avoid going anywhere near the place that their trauma occurred. This can happen so severely to the point that they refuse to leave their home.

Psychological symptoms are often the reason that individuals lose a lot of their functional abilities. Teenagers who have flashbacks will often find reasons not to go to school or leave the house. They will have a lot of fear that could impact their friendships and schoolwork. The fear can be debilitating to them and cause them to have a lot of sadness. And finally, the anxiety can be extremely difficult for teenagers to manage. Often medications can be very helpful in treating the psychological symptoms that PTSD presents.

Mood symptoms

PTSD often causes changes in people’s mood and personalities. The symptoms to notice in this group is that individuals will no longer be interested in things that they once loved. They will avoid activities they previously found pleasurable. They will feel lonely and even guilty for the trauma that they experienced. They may feel detached from others or from themselves. They may experience depression and have thoughts of self-harm or suicide. It is important to identify if the teenager has any plan for self-harm or suicide. If so, they require immediate hospitalization and treatment.

Let’s return again to our example teen who was bullied. He used to love gaming online. He previously played all the time when his homework and chores were done. After being bullied, he has such a severe fear of being online that he quit gaming. In fact, he won’t even play board games with his family now. After school he goes to his room and sleeps if he’s not fighting with his siblings. He no longer wants to spend time with his friends or his family. He is isolating all the time. He reports that he no longer loves to game and wants to be left alone. These are mood symptoms consistent with PTSD.

A teenager may not have all of these symptoms, but if they are experiencing PTSD, they likely have a combination of them. So, if you’re worried about your teenager, what should you do?

We have a few ideas.

Ask questions

If you are worried that your teenager is displaying symptoms of PTSD, you should kindly ask them questions. Do not be accusatory or emotional as they may not honestly answer. You must create a safe space for them to be open with you. Ask them something like: “I’ve noticed that you have been isolating yourself lately and not doing things you love, are you okay? Is there something that maybe I don’t know that you would like to share with me?” This opens the conversation for your teenager to perhaps tell you if something happened. Be sure to let them know that you love them and you only want what’s best for them.

Teach them about treatment

If you notice that your teen is displaying symptoms of PTSD, you should let them know there are treatment options that could improve their quality of life. If they are having PTSD symptoms, they likely aren’t feeling well and are scared. While they may be hesitant to treatment at first, they will likely entertain the idea of getting back to feeling better. Teenagers want normalcy. This may be something to prompt them with.

You should first teach them about PTSD, what it is, and what it looks like. This will help the teen to self-identify their trauma and the impact of it. It will help them to be informed young people about their mental health and wellness. This will be empowering to them, even if it does not feel like it initially.

First, I would recommend teaching them about counseling. There are two different kinds of treatment that will be very beneficial to their PTSD. The first is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and the second is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, otherwise known as CBT, will aim to teach your teenager that if they change their thinking, their behavior can change. It will teach your teenager that although they feel they have to fear everyone and cannot trust anyone, that there are in fact people who they can trust who will not hurt them. It will teach them about their symptoms and offer them ways of coping. It will challenge the maladaptive coping skills and cognitive distortions so they can see clearer and more objectively about their trauma. Right now they are leading with emotions, and this makes sense because what they went through was painful. But, if they can be more objective, their symptoms can decrease.

The second treatment options is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy, otherwise known as EMDR. EMDR is a form of psychotherapy used to decrease the symptoms of PTSD. A therapist will ask the teenager to recall the trauma and then use tapping or eye stimulations to access the trauma and offer it new information. As new associations are formed neurologically, the more helpful information will process, new learning will take place, and emotional distress will reduce. EMDR has been found to be especially helpful with PTSD patients and trauma work.

Inpatient treatment

Sitting - PTSD - Hillcrest

You should also teach your child about inpatient treatment. Many teenagers benefit from residential treatment centers for PTSD. The benefit of residential treatment for teens is that they will get a great deal of supports up front so that their symptoms start to reduce immediately. This will help them to improve quickly and return to their normal, or new normal, lives. Whereas weekly outpatient therapy may take much longer to see improvements in teenagers.

Your teen needs to understand the benefits of residential treatment and how having staff with them 24/7 to help them do the work in a supportive environment will be great for them. If they understand what is going on with their health and understand the appropriate treatment, they will be more likely to engage in it. This will help them tremendously on their way to recovery and eliminating the painful symptoms of PTSD.

PTSD could be impacting your teen and it can be difficult to admit this. But, the good news is that appropriate treatments are available. It starts with noticing what’s going on with your teen, asking questions, teaching them about treatment, and then finding them the right provider to ensure their recovery. Their lives can improve and quickly in the right environment.

If your teenager might benefit from residential treatment, know that you have options for treatment. Hillcrest is here and our dedicated staff knows how hard it can be to heal from mental health issues like PTSD and addiction. Reach out today to find out how we can help!