My Teen Experienced an Extreme Trauma: What Can I Do?

We recently posed a question on social media:

“Hey Parents of Teens! What Do You Want to Know? What topic would be the most helpful for you? If you’ve ever thought, ‘I wish I had a guide to deal with this problem!’ Now is your chance to ask for that guide.”

Members of our community replied with their most pressing questions. One concerned parent asked,

“What [do you] do if your teen is hurt and permanently scarred by an event and you don’t know what to say or do? How [do you] deal with those times when neither side knows how to ask for help or how to even start?”

This post is for that parent, that teenager, and any family whose teen has experienced a traumatic event and neither the parents nor the teen knows how to deal with it.

The first thing we want to say to the parent who asked that question is this: you’re on the right track. You’ve just started. You reached out – in the best way you knew how in that moment – to professionals who have experience in these areas.

What your teenager needs right now is the support of a mental health professional who can help them process the emotions around the traumatic event they’ve experienced. They need help because what it sounds like is that your teenager has had what’s known as an Adverse Childhood Experience, or an ACE. Children exposed to ACEs are at an increased likelihood of developing a wide range of serious physical, emotional, and mental health conditions.

You’ve come to the right place.

Although it’s true that nothing can completely erase a past trauma, there are steps you can take to minimize the long-term consequences.

Starting with what you already did: you asked for help – and hopefully you’re now reading this article.

The ACE Study

About twenty-five years ago, Kaiser Health, in collaboration with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) launched the ACE Study, an ambitious research project designed to examine the effect of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) on long-term physical, emotional, and behavioral health. What they found was that children exposed to early trauma are at elevated risk of:

  • Developing learning disabilities
  • Displaying behavioral problems
  • Developing cognitive
  • Developing mood and/or anxiety disorders
  • Adopting risky behaviors
  • Developing chronic health conditions

That’s why your concern, as a parent or primary caregiver, is one hundred percent warranted. However, we want to make something very clear: elevated risk of developing does not mean absolutely will develop. The list above may be scary – and it should be – but the long-term health and well-being of your teen does not rely on what happened in the past.

The past cannot be changed.

The future health and well-being of your teen relies on what you do now.

So, what can you do now?

How to Help Kids with ACEs

ACEs have long-term effects on children because of the stress they cause. Acute stress, or stress that occurs once and then goes away, is something all of us deal with every day. The problem with stress caused by adverse experiences is that it does not, practically speaking, go away. It becomes chronic. Acute stress, such as getting cut off in traffic, causes a flood of the hormone cortisol in the brain and body. You feel a rush of adrenaline and experience the accompanying emotions – but then, after a few minutes, you calm down and everything is okay. You return, more or less, to where you were before.

The stress caused by a truly traumatic experience is different. It can return instantly, at any moment, triggered by a memory, a sight, a sound, an odor, or anything that reminds an individual of the traumatic event. All the emotions come back, and the individual re-experiences the trauma. This can happen over and over for years. Most people understand this phenomenon as PTSD, or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

To the parent who posed the question that about how to handle their teen who has been “permanently scarred,” we want to give you hope: the worst effects of PTSD – i.e. everything we mentioned above – can be minimized. With the proper support, your teen may not develop PTSD, and therefore, can avoid the complications caused by long-term exposure to the stress hormone, cortisol.

The answer to the question what’s to be done now is you and your teen need to find a mental health professional to help both of you manage the stress of the situation. But first, we want to help you and your teen understand why learning to manage the stress and emotions related to the original trauma is crucial for your long-term well-being.

The Types of Stress

To learn why it’s critical to manage childhood stress, you have to know exactly what you’re dealing with. Researchers at Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child identify three primary types of stress in growing children:

  • Positive Stress. This is the kind of stress everyone deals with every day. It’s a feature of being human. Learning to navigate this type of stress is beneficial, and in the end, promotes healthy development.
  • Tolerable Stress. This type of stress causes a physical response that can be damaging if it’s not processed in a healthy manner. As long as it doesn’t last too long, and there are adults around who can help process the related emotions, tolerable stress is just that: tolerable. It typically will not lead to PTSD or any of the chronic health conditions associated with PTSD or ACEs.
  • Toxic Stress. This type of stress is caused by physical or sexual abuse, neglect, exposure to substance abuse, mental illness, or exposure to violence in the absence of adequate adult support.

Chronic, toxic stress is widely accepted by mental health community as the main cause of the severe mental and physical consequences of adverse childhood experiences. As the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) states in a study published in 2012, stress turns toxic when children experience:

“…strong, frequent, or prolonged activation of the body’s stress response system in the absence of the buffering protection of a supportive adult.”

What we want to emphasize here is the last phrase of that sentence: in the absence of the buffering protection of a supportive adult. To the parent who posed the initial question, or to any parent of a child or teen who has experienced trauma, we say this: you can be that supportive adult.

No pressure, right?

The First Line of Support

It’s true: you can help ensure they don’t suffer the worst effects of their traumatic experience. And there is no pressure, because you don’t have to do anything beyond your capacity. Yes – learn about the topics discussed in this article. Yes – accept it’s a difficult time for both of you, and especially for them. But no: don’t think you have to become the therapist, because you don’t. You don’t have to do anything magical. Your job is to continue to offer them unconditional love and support – and find them professional help.

You can do that.

And we haven’t forgotten the last part of the question that opened this article:

“How [do you] deal with those times when neither side knows how to ask for help or how to even start?”

Here’s something you need to know: you’ve already started. If you’re the parent who posed the question, typing it to us was your first step. If you’re the parent of a teen who’s suffered trauma, reading this article is your first step. You are the first line of support. You’re the buffering protection they need to process the difficult and uncomfortable emotions they’re experiencing. You, and the therapist or other professional support you find when you use the resources we’re about to offer.

Finding Help: Resources for Parents

For general help managing stress and emotional issues, parents can find a qualified professional for their teen with this psychiatrist finder provided by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

For parents of teens who’ve experience dating violence or sexual abuse, these resources are invaluable:

  • Victim Connect Hotline: 1 (855) 484-2846
  • National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1 (800) 799-7233 En Espanol: 1 (800) 787-3224
  • National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1 (800) 656-4673
  • The National Sexual Assault Online Hotline: https://hotline.rainn.org/online/

For parents whose teens may be experimenting with illegal substances or alcohol, the online Substance Use Resource Center provided by the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry is helpful, as well as the Parents and Families page maintained by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA). Make sure to watch their 20-Minute Parent Guide.

Finally, teens who’ve experienced trauma and have engaged in suicidal ideation or self-harming behavior can call or text the following numbers for immediate support:

  • The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (24/7/365): 1-800-273-8255
  • The Trevor Project Phone (24/7/365): 1-866-488-7386
  • Trevor Project Text (7 days/wk, 6am-am ET, 3am-10pm PT): Text START to 678678
  • Trevor Project Chat: CLICK HERE
  • The Crisis Text Line (24/7/365): Text CONNECT to 741741
  • Youth Yellow Pages TEEN LINE (6pm-10pm PT) 310-855-4673
  • Youth Yellow Pages TEXT: Text TEEN to 839863