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How to Help Your Teen Deal With Trauma

Adolescents may handle scary events better if you remember these tips

A friend recently shared some terrible news: A classmate of her 15-year-old daughter committed suicide by jumping off a bridge.

My friend didn’t know how to talk to her daughter about it. Talking seemed to be the last thing the girl wanted. “I’m fine,” she said, flatly. And, “It’s none of your business.”

If you have teenage children or grandchildren, you may have felt as if they went from being your little shadow one day to wanting nothing to do with you the next.

But what happens when you know they have experienced something tragic – something that would be extremely upsetting to anyone, not the least a kid? If they are pushing you away, how do you get through to help?

A Nuanced Approach

“In these kinds of cases the best thing to do is to try to provide some words for what the kids might be feeling without directly applying it to them,” said Dr. Denise Duval, a child psychologist in Chicago.

For a younger child, we might say, “Oh you must feel sad or scared,” but a better approach for adolescents might be, “This kind of thing can be scary or it can be confusing, it can make people sad, it makes people angry,” Duval said.

“So if we remove it ever so slightly from them, they might be a little more willing to take it in,” she said.

It’s important to bring up the issue so that we parents can show we empathize, however, she said.

Different Emotions OK

Kids can experience a range of feelings in response to a traumatic event.

“I think angry, scared and confused are the biggest ones,” Duval said. “Sometimes they feel guilty about feeling angry.”

Sometimes teens don’t want to talk – and that’s OK, she said.

“But I think what you want to do is open the door to conversation to let them know that you’re here if ever they would like to do that,” Duval said.

Prevalence of Trauma

Traumatic events can include everything from war and natural disaster to physical and sexual abuse, neglect, bullying, a serious accident or illness, and exposure to extreme events such as homicide or suicide, according to the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

In a 2014 review of the literature on trauma, SAMHSA added that it referred to events that that are “experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or threatening and that (have) lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.”

In a nationally representative survey of 12- to 17-year-olds, 8 percent said they had experienced sexual assault sometime in their life.

Once considered an abnormal occurrence, researchers found that, “presented with a list of 11 types of traumatic experiences and a 12th “other” category, 60.7 percent of men and 51.2 percent of women reported experiencing at least one trauma in their lifetime,” the SAMHSA report said.

And in a nationally representative survey of 12- to 17-year-olds, 8 percent said they had experienced sexual assault sometime in their life. Seventeen percent reported being physical assaulted, and an astounding 39 percent reported witnessing violence.

Most Children Are Resilient

Fortunately, the majority of kids who experience traumatic events bounce back from them in a period of weeks or months, according to the American Psychological Association. That’s particularly true for children whose trauma consists of a single incident.

What is key is that kids to get the support they need.

Duval said she works with many college-age survivors of sexual assault. For all of them, it’s traumatic. But some do better than others.

“For (them), it’s experienced as a terrible, terrible thing, but based on the support systems they have and the people in their life and how people responded to them, they were able to work through it and process it better.”

Signs to Watch For

Older adults can pay attention to certain indications of a teen not coping well, Duval said. These include:

  • A change in behavior, not doing things they used to, such as going out with friends, or not being excited about things they typically enjoyed
  • A change in mood, such as being more short-tempered or more sensitive than usual
  • Signs of anxiety or worry, such as nightmares or difficulty concentrating in school.

Adolescents may also have physical complaints, exhibit destructive behavior and abuse alcohol or drugs, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

What Caring Adults Can Do

Here are some suggestions for what parents and other adults can do for children who have experienced a traumatic event, from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network:

Be patient. Don’t try to push your child to talk or to “get over it.” Everyone has their own timetable for healing, and there is no “correct” pace.

Let them know they are not responsible. Children and teens often blame themselves, even when something is completely out of their control.

Maintain regular routines. Keep home and school routines in place as much as possible. This lends a sense of normalcy to kids’ lives.

Contact a mental health professional if necessary. If a teen’s behavior is concerning, or the distress continues for a long period of time, call a professional. Your primary care doctor or your child’s school should be able to offer a referral.

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