Evolve Adolescent Behavioral Health

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Turn on the TV on any given day and it seems there’s news of yet another school shooting, deadly accident, or natural disaster somewhere in our country.  When you include the plethora of tragic stories regarding the physical or sexual abuse of youth, any caring parent can easily become consumed with fear regarding the safety of their own kids and worry about the potential impact of such horrific events. 

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a serious psychological disorder that develops in some individuals after they’ve been through something traumatic.  If left untreated, it can negatively impact all areas of a person’s life, making it difficult or even impossible to function, let alone experience any joy in life.  Flashbacks, nightmares, emotional numbing, and frequent anxiety are just a few of the painful symptoms of PTSD.  

This brief guide is designed to help you gain awareness regarding the signs to watch for and understand the steps to take if you believe your teen has or is developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  

PTSD facts and statistics

Following are several facts and statistics regarding PTSD in teens

Three Types of PTSD

There are actually three types of PTSD, distinguished by when symptoms first appear and how long they last.  They are:

Trauma Events that can Trigger PTSD

Any traumatic event can trigger the development of PTSD symptoms, including (but not limited to):  

Psychiatric Disorders that often Co-Occur with PTSD

It’s not uncommon for a teen with PTSD to have other mental health issues as well.  Disorders that often co-occur with PTSD include:

Teens with PTSD also have an increased risk for many emotional and behavioral issues including:

Looking for and Recognizing the Signs

Not everyone who goes through something traumatic develops posttraumatic stress disorder.  However, if you know your teen has been through a recent trauma, pay close attention to any changes in his or her normal mood, personality, or behavior.  These changes may signal the onset of PTSD.  Keep in mind that:

Signs to watch for may include the following:

*Suicidal thoughts or behaviors should never be ignored.  Don’t assume your teen is just being “dramatic” or manipulative.  There is an increased risk of suicide in individuals with PTSD.

Knowing the First Steps to Take  

If you believe your teen has or may be developing PTSD, it’s vital that you don’t ignore it or just hope it will pass.  Instead, take the following initial steps:

1Talk to your teen.  Sit down with your teen and let him or her know that you’re really concerned about the things you’ve been observing.  Let our teen know that you want to help in any way you can, and that you’re there if he or she wants to talk – about anything. 

Be prepared for the possibility that your teen may deny there’s a problem, become defensive (e.g. accusing you of worrying too much or being over-protective), or push you away.  Talking about the impact of a trauma can be very difficult. 

2 – Have your teen evaluated.  Your teen’s pediatrician or your family doctor can do an initial evaluation.  This can help rule out any underlying medical issues that may be causing or contributing to your teen’s symptoms and also provide the basis for an initial diagnosis. 

With PTSD, however, it’s essential that you have your teen evaluated by a psychologist, psychiatrist, or other mental health professional as soon as possible.  Look for someone who not only specializes in treating children and adolescents, but who also has substantial experience in working with individuals who’ve experienced trauma.  These professionals have the specialized training to identify and understand the challenges, potential dangers, and nuances of PTSD in this age group.  Your family doctor may be able to give you a referral or recommendation.

3 – Get your teen into treatment.  Early intervention is really important when it comes to dealing with trauma.  It can help prevent PTSD from developing, and reduce the severity of symptoms if it already has. Like many psychiatric disorders, PTSD often becomes increasingly difficult to treat as time goes on.  

Supporting and Encouraging Your Teen   

As your teen goes through the healing process, two of the most important things you can do is provide amble encouragement and support.  Two things to keep in mind that will really help are that 1) PTSD isn’t a sign of emotional weakness and 2) this isn’t something your teen can simply overcome with determination or sheer willpower.

Following are several ways you can provide support and encouragement:

What to Do When Things Escalate

Posttraumatic stress disorder can trigger erratic, aggressive, and / or self-destructive behaviors in adolescents.  These behaviors can be unpredictable and even dangerous.  If your teen is using alcohol or drugs as a way of coping, engaging in self-harm, or having thoughts of suicide, things can gradually or suddenly escalate.  Co-occurring disorders such as depression can also create a rapid downward spiral.

If your teen is becoming increasingly depressed, manic, actively suicidal, or becomes a danger to self or others in any way, don’t hesitate to reach out for help in the following ways:

When Individual Therapy isn’t Enough  

For some teens battling PTSD, individual therapy won’t be sufficient.  They may need a more intensive level of treatment, at least for a while.  A higher level of care is likely needed if your teen is:

then it’s time to consider a more intensive level of treatment.  This may involve:

Intensive outpatient treatment or psychiatric day treatment for PTSD can vary in terms of the amount of time spent in treatment and how many times a week your teen is required to go.  These programs are often the next step up from regular outpatient treatment.

Dual diagnosis treatment is often necessary if your teen has a substance use disorder in addition to PTSD.  The substance use problem will almost always hinder the effectiveness of individual therapy alone.  Enrolling your teen in a dual diagnosis program allows for both disorders to be treated simultaneously.   

Residential treatment requires having your teen live at a non-hospital treatment facility that specializes in treating teens with PTSD and other psychiatric disorders.  Residential treatment typically lasts between 30 to 180 days, depending on the severity of symptoms and how well your teen is progressing in treatment.  

Inpatient psychiatric treatment in a hospital setting is the highest and most intensive level of treatment for teens with PTSD.   Patients are monitored ‘round the clock.  Hospitalization is usually relatively brief.  It’s often used primarily to stabilize your teen and ensure safety.  

Each of these more intensive levels of treatment typically provides daily or bi-weekly visits with a psychiatrist and a variety of therapeutic activities.

Taking Care of Yourself 

Knowing that your teen is dealing with the aftermath of trauma can be gut-wrenching.  The treatment process may seem tedious at times, and many parents feel like they should be doing more – even though they’re already doing everything they can.  The toll can be significant, which is why it’s imperative to make self-care a priority.  Otherwise, you risk exhaustion and burn-out, both of which will hinder you from being there for your child. 

There are several things you can do to bolster your own well-being while your teen is healing, such as:

Remember, with proper treatment, love, and support many individuals with PTSD do eventually work through and heal from the pain, and find joy once again.