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What is Indirect/Vicarious Trauma and How Does It Develop in Teens?

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT

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Hearing about a horrific tragedy that has occurred or is occurring can sometimes result in symptoms of trauma – even for people who weren’t directly involved in the event. This concept is known as indirect trauma. If this has happened to you, you know that traumatic symptoms can develop immediately after you hear the news, or, they can develop weeks and months later.

Trauma and PTSD

Examples of traumatic incidents include natural disasters, war, terrorist attacks, shootings, murders, cases of abuse, assault, or severe accidents.

If you’ve experienced trauma, you know the subsequent symptoms. You can’t stop thinking about the event. You go through the day numb and in shock. Maybe you get headaches, feel nauseous. Your body might shake and tremble. You can’t sleep, eat, or talk normally. You have nightmares or flashbacks about the traumatic event.

These are the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They can occur in anybody impacted by a stressful event. They can occur in people who weren’t physically present to witness or experience the incident firsthand.

One well-known example of indirect trauma affecting people worldwide is 9/11. On September 11, 2001, millions of people around the world watched television coverage of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York City. Studies show that the hours of TV children watched on 9/11 corresponded to the rates of PTSD they experienced in the months and years to follow.

How Does Indirect Trauma Happen?

When an event such as a natural disaster, war, tragedy, or shooting is made public, there is a natural need for people to try to make sense out of it.

People ask:

How did this happen? Why did it happen? Was it preventable? Was there anyone to blame?

Often, teens turn to the media for answers. They search online and they find news articles. They turn to see what friends on social media post about the event.

This type of media consumption can be both helpful and harmful.

On one hand, the information teens gather can help them process the traumatic event. Confusion can breed anxiety. For example, not knowing exactly where a hurricane landed can instill fear in teens and children. Knowing the hurricane is far away can comfort adolescents who might worry about their personal safety.
Social support is another benefit. If a community member or mutual friend passes away, watching the livestream of the funeral, or reading friends’ memories, can help teens process the trauma. As friends and strangers empathize with one another in their shared grief, closure and healing can occur. It can be comforting to know thousands of others are crying along with you and are – like you – devastated by what happened.

And yet, information gathering comes with risks as well. Media reporting on traumatic incidents often involves graphic content, especially when loss of life is involved. For teenagers, explicit content can contribute to nightmares or insomnia. It’s hard to un-see gruesome images. And adolescents who already have mental health issues such as anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, self-harming behavior, suicidal ideation, or depression can become more distressed by media content If a teen experienced trauma early in life, residue from that trauma can come up in the moment, even if it’s unrelated.

Different Types of Trauma

Let’s backtrack for a moment and discuss the various types of trauma.

There are two main types of trauma: direct and indirect.

Direct trauma occurs when we witness traumatic events ourselves. If you’re the victim of abuse or assault, you have experienced direct trauma. The same is true for people directly affected by natural disasters, shootings, or war. Family members or friends who lose a close loved one have also experienced direct trauma.

Indirect trauma occurs when someone doesn’t experience the trauma themselves but learns about it from another source. The trauma might have happened to a friend, neighbor, classmate, or client. Indirect trauma includes two categories: secondary trauma and vicarious trauma.

  1. Secondary trauma, or secondary traumatic stress, happens when someone is exposed to the firsthand traumatic experience of someone else. For example, if a teen got held up at knife-point on his way home from school one day, and retells the story the next day in school, classmates may experience indirect trauma. Indirect trauma can also occur from watching the news.
  2. Vicarious trauma, on the other hand, often occurs in therapists, clinicians, first responders, emergency room personnel, or others who work in helping professions. These professionals are often exposed to many traumatic experiences on the job. For example, social workers may learn about incidents of abuse or violence from their clients. Doctors may see the physical effects of violence on their patients. EMTs may be traumatized after responding to the scene of an accident involving severe injuries or casualties.

Clinicians often use secondary trauma and vicarious trauma interchangeably to refer to indirect trauma.

What Parents Can Do

First, parents can help prevent symptoms of indirect trauma by carefully monitoring what their children watch and listen to on the news, radio, or TV. If your adolescent is in the car while an inappropriate news story is playing, you can change the channel. The same goes for stories on TV or online news sites: if you notice inappropriate, potentially traumatic content, you can change the channel. Additionally, when you discuss current events in front of children, keep in mind that they absorb much more than we think they do.

Second, it’s important to have a filter on every computer, laptop, and smartphone that your adolescent has access to. Even if you think your teenager doesn’t need it, they do. There are numerous control systems available which parents can use to block inappropriate or unsafe pages online. These filters can also help ensure your teen doesn’t engage in dangerous interactions on social media. Your teen may stumble upon unsafe content accidentally.

I Think My Teen has PTSD

If you think your teen has experienced a traumatic incident – either directly or indirectly – monitor them carefully for signs of PTSD. Watch out for any major changes in their mood or behavior. Some adolescents become irritable and have frequent angry outbursts when they feel new, unfamiliar, or overwhelming emotions. Teens might develop insomnia and have nightmares or night terrors. Some teens might refuse to go to school. Others may complain of stomachaches or headaches.

Here are some additional signs of PTSD:

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Being jumpy or easily startled, flinching
  • Acting out at home or school
  • Difficulty expressing themselves
  • Anxiety or nervousness
  • Self-harming behaviors
  • Regression (acting younger than their numeric age or current level of maturity)
  • Emotional numbness
  • Decline in school performance
  • Avoiding new activities or experiences
  • Intense sadness
  • Suicidal thoughts or behaviors*

NEVER IGNORE THOUGHTS OF SUICIDE. Call 911 if your teen is talking about or say they’re thinking about suicide.

Remember: sometimes, your teen may be acting out and you have no idea why. You may not always be aware that your teen has experienced a traumatic event. Many teens who experience traumatic events do not share them with their parents. They might keep it secret because they are ashamed, or embarrassed, or because they may want to forget it happened altogether.

Seek Professional Support

However, if they experience any of the symptoms listed above, it’s important to arrange an assessment with a licensed mental health professional. If the symptoms point to PTSD, your teen may require treatment at an adolescent mental health treatment center that specializes in trauma. At a residential treatment, partial hospitalization, or intensive outpatient treatment center for teens, your adolescent will gain the skills they need to process and work through their trauma. They can learn healthy ways to manage their pain, tolerate stressful emotions, maintain relationships with others, and learn to be okay with themselves again.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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