Many teenagers in treatment are being diagnosed with a disorder once associated primarily with soldiers returning from war.  Post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is now known to affect not only soldiers, but anyone who has a strong, but unaddressed, emotional reaction to a highly disruptive situation.  If you believe your teenage daughter may be struggling with a past trauma, the following may help you offer informed, compassionate support as she heals.  Let’s start by answering, “What is PTSD?”

Trauma defined

Trauma, in therapeutic parlance, is a normal response to frightening or emotionally disruptive events.  It can range from very short term emotional discomfort to acute stress disorder to post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.  Acute stress disorder, though uncomfortable and persistent, can resolve on its own in a matter of weeks or months.  PTSD is marked by chronic, persistent, and sometimes debilitating emotional distress related to the traumatic event.

Is my daughter over reacting, or actually traumatized?

Of course the most obvious sources of trauma are things like war, rape, and assault.  Those events are so harrowing that it’s easy to understand that most people would be seriously affected by them.  But experts are now acknowledging that individuals differ in their sensitivity to disruptive experiences and, therefore, have expanded the definition of a potentially traumatic event to include:

  • Natural Events: Researchers have seen ripples of traumatic reactions to hurricanes, earthquakes, floods fires in the neighborhood or home, and other natural events where the individual feels threatened.
  • Family Disruption:  Divorce, a parent’s job loss, even the death of a grandparent can trigger a trauma response.
  • Adoption:  Even at-birth adoptions can cause trauma, since the child is suddenly separated from the one person it recognizes chemically as his or her parent.
  • Car Accidents: Car accidents in which one’s life seemed at risk or in which there was loss of life or serious injury can have long lasting, post-traumatic emotional impacts.

Helping your daughter heal

In their effort to help, parents often either minimize or pathologize their child’s trauma experience.  Both responses, say experts, can be counterproductive.  It’s important to normalize the child or teen’s emotional response to trauma–whatever that may be.  Immediately pathologizing it can disrupt the normal, natural healing process.  Ignoring it, on the other hand, can also slow or stop the child’s progress toward healing.

The best response is to normalize your teen’s experience by listening and encouraging–but not forcing–communication about her feelings and thoughts.  Encourage your child to feel what she feels without judging herself or her reactions–trauma responses may include survivor’s guilt, difficulty sleeping, anxiety, etc. Avoidance of emotions/memories related to the trauma can create situation in which PTSD can develop.  Many teens feel that “I should just get over it and stop talking about it over and over.”   So make it okay to stay in the feelings and talk about them.

Avoid pathologizing your child’s emotional reactions by, for instance, prematurely assigning clinical labels like PTSD.   Clinical labels and an overly clinical approach too soon can exacerbate the problem by sending the message the your child’s responses are abnormal and that they are helpless to cope and move through it.

If your teen’s reaction to trauma persists or seems to worsen over time, seek outside help to diagnose and treat the issue.  Participation in processing groups comprised of people with similar experiences can help normalize your child’s experience and reactions.  This can be especially important when the family is not in a position to provide an adequately safe place for extensive processing.  A more sensitive family member may have more intense reactions and a slower healing process than other family members.   This can make that child feel uncomfortable with her responses, bottling up thoughts and feelings that she needs to process in order to heal.

Whether your child is early in the process of dealing with a trauma or has been struggling for some time, help is available.  Healing is possible.