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Understanding PTSD in Teens

Teenage girl with PTSD staring through a window

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition in which someone struggles to cope with a traumatic experience in their past. This condition can lead to anxiety, nightmares and panic attacks. Teens who experience PTSD are most likely the victims of neglect, abuse or assault, have been in a war zone or have been involved in some other traumatic event.

PTSD in teens is similar to PTSD in adults except that teens may be more likely to experience impulsiveness and aggressiveness as symptoms of PTSD.

What Is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)?

PTSD is a mental health condition that is caused after a trauma. Symptoms may begin within a month after the traumatic event, but may also start years afterward. While the symptoms experienced with PTSD will vary for everyone, PTSD is typically characterized by a state of hyperarousal (always being alert for danger), and severe anxiety or panic when a trigger occurs that is connected with the previous trauma.

For example, a teen involved in a car accident where someone died in the car with them may find themselves constantly scanning the road and watching every car. When the car jerks or anything unexpected happens while driving, it may cause them to have a severe episode of panic.

Someone who has been assaulted in their home may find themselves jumping at every sound and constantly checking their environment to ensure they are safe. Often, a trigger can cause them to relive the trauma. This can lead to panic attacks, nightmares, and anxiety. Reliving trauma can occur at any time without warning, and depending upon the severity of the PTSD, the hyperarousal and sensitivity to triggers can cause severe disruptions to daily life.

PTSD Statistics

PTSD statistics showcase that:

  • About 7-8% of the population will have PTSD at some point in their lives.
  • 4% of men develop PTSD at some point in their lives compared to 10% of women.
  • Female teens are also more likely to experience PTSD than males, with 3-15% of teen girls who experience trauma getting PTSD while only 1-6% of boys who experience trauma get PTSD.

Causes of PTSD in Adolescents

PTSD in adolescents is caused by trauma. There are several types of trauma that can bring on PTSD. Some of the traumas that can bring on PTSD in teens include:

  • Being the victim of sexual assault
  • Being the victim of another violent crime
  • Involvement in natural disasters such as fires or floods
  • Involvement in accidents such as a car accident, plane crash or building collapse
  • Exposure to war or an act of terrorism
  • Suicide of a close friend or family member
  • Exposure to violence or crime in an area where they live

While exposure to trauma is necessary to bring on PTSD, only a small percentage of those who experience trauma will develop PTSD.

How Is PTSD Treated?

PTSD treatment can involve a variety of treatment options and should be tailored to each specific case. Typically, treatment will involve learning how to deal with PTSD triggers and developing positive coping skills for PTSD. Some common treatment options include:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: Trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for PTSD can help teens in coping with PTSD. CBT involves developing an understanding of the internal motivators that influence our behavior and learning how to change those motivators to bring about a positive change in behavior.
  • Play therapy: Play therapy for PTSD is typically used in small children, but can be used for teens. This form of therapy involves communicating with and influencing the affected child through playing with them in a way that helps them to process the trauma they have experienced.
  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR): EMDR therapy for PTSD has shown promise as a highly effective way of treating PTSD. EMDR involves briefly reliving aspects of the trauma while a therapist helps to guide the patient’s eye movements. This therapy has been shown to help the brain heal from trauma and has been effective in treating PTSD.
  • Medication: PTSD medication can help to alleviate or treat symptoms of anxiety, panic, and hyperarousal. These medications can also stabilize and rebalance chemicals in the brain, decreasing the symptoms of PTSD.

Co-Occurring Substance Abuse and PTSD in Teens

PTSD is often connected with substance abuse, with over 20% of those who have PTSD also developing an addiction to substances. PTSD can lead to self-medicating to deal with stress and increases the risk that someone will start using drugs or alcohol to cope with the trauma they have experienced.

Those who have an addiction and a mental health disorder at the same time have a condition called dual diagnosis or co-occurring disorders. Dual diagnosis is harder to treat, as both the mental health conditions and substance use disorder should be treated at the same time for treatment to have the best outcome.

Signs of Substance Abuse and PTSD in Teens

Symptoms of PTSD in teens may include panic or anxiety when exposed to something that was previously associated with a traumatic experience, or a hyper-alert state in certain situations. If you suspect that your teen has PTSD, you should have them evaluated by a doctor as soon as possible. Only a doctor can definitively say whether someone has PTSD or not.

Signs of substance abuse in teens will primary be related to changes in their behavior or patterns. Some signs that your teen may be abusing substances include:

  • Excessive sleepiness
  • Slurred speech
  • Difficulty maintaining a normal conversation
  • Changes in schedules
  • Decline in academic performance
  • A significant change in friends
  • Increased agitation or confrontations
  • Deterioration of important relationships
  • Deterioration in personal hygiene

These signs do not necessarily indicate that your teen is definitely abusing substances, but should cause you to pay closer attention to their behaviors and consider speaking with them about it.

Finding Treatment for Teens with Co-Occurring Disorders

Co-occurring disorders treatment is important for teens who need both PTSD and substance abuse treatment. If only one condition is treated at a time, it is likely that the treatment will not be successful. To give your teen the best chance of success, you should consider seeking treatment that addresses both PTSD and substance use disorder simultaneously.

Parent’s Role in Recovery

Parenting a child with PTSD can be difficult, and there are resources to make it easier. Seeking professional help should be the first step, then focussing on being as involved in the treatment plan as possible. The treatment team will provide you with strategies and resources to help your child at home and to give them opportunities and feedback to use the techniques learned during therapy.

If your child may have PTSD and a substance use problem, then you should definitely seek professional help. Next Generation Village has a strong record of helping teens with co-occurring disorders to achieve full and lasting recoveries. Reach out to one of our understanding team members to learn more about how your teen can start on their path to recovery today.

Medical Disclaimer: Next Generation Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.


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