PTSD in adolescents: 8 events that might influence PTSD

Learn more about what influences PTSD in teenagers. Then, explore the 8 more common causes of this disorder in adolescents. Finally, we invite your feedback at the end.

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PTSD and your teen

Traumatic experiences can inflict long lasting damage to teens and their ability to grow up and live normally. What can you, as parents, do about it?

Parents can act in the best interest of their teen by educating themselves about the different types of experiences that can cause long term post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in adolescents. In this article, we take a closer look at some of the life events that have been known to influence PTSD in teens. Then, we invite you to send us your questions via the comments section at the bottom of the page.

What events influence PTSD in adolescents?

Event # 1: Abuse

Any kind of abuse can trigger PTSD in teens, including:

  • Sexual abuse
  • Emotional abuse
  • Mental abuse

Though teens are developing their independence, they still look to people in positions of authority to take care of them and to look out for their best interests. When these people take advantage of their positions and abuse teens who trust them, they inflict damage that can take years to heal.

Teens who have endured even the shortest periods of abuse may find it difficult to regain their trust in adults. In addition, they may easily react with alarm, anger, and fright if they are exposed to circumstances that remind them of their past trauma.

Event #2: Violence

Likewise, teens may develop PTSD if they experience or witness any kind of violence. Instances of violence which teens will typically remember for years afterward include:

  • Witnessing their parent get beat up by a trusted friend or relative.
  • Seeing someone get shot or stabbed.
  • Being the victim of violence themselves.

The fear and pain inflicted by these violent events can last for years afterward.

Moreover, their PTSD can be triggered easily by seemingly harmless circumstances, such as watching a movie or hearing a sound that reminds them of the traumatic event. Teens with PTSD from a violent event may in turn react violently or alternatively shrink back in fear.

EVENT #3: Military Combat

While uncommon in the U.S., military combat results in PTSD syndrome in teens around the world. Children and teens who live in war torn countries, like Syria or Afghanistan, have been reported to have developed PTSD that rivals that of military veterans.

The sound of bombs dropping or gunfire resonate in their memories long after the combat ends or they are relocated to new surroundings. These children often develop related syndromes like shell shock.

EVENT #4: Witnessing a Death

Child psychologists vary in their viewpoints on to what extent children and teens should be exposed to death. Some agree that children are resilient enough to watch a grandparent or parent pass away naturally in the hospital. Others say that children should be shielded at all costs from seeing anyone succumb to the dying process.

These pediatric psychologists say that watching a loved one die, even if the relative is elderly and was expected to pass quickly, can trigger PTSD in children. Children do not have the maturity or the rationale to process witnessing a loved one die. They may develop PTSD and an irrational fear of death, hospitals, or getting sick.

EVENT #5: Injuries or Illness

Teens who have suffered a devastating injury can often develop PTSD as a result of a health crises. Some example of a devastating injury include:

  • a broken leg
  • burns
  • prolonged illnesses, like leukemia

Even after they have recovered, they might fear any situation that they believe could cause them harm or sickness. Teens with PTSD caused by being badly injured or extremely sick may also develop:

Secondary syndromes – An example of a secondary syndrome is OCD, where a person continuously washes their hands or takes showers to avoid germs.

Reactive disorders – These disorders cause people to act out violently or with irrational fear if they are exposed to new surroundings or people whom they have not met and cannot control.

EVENT #6: Car Crashes

Children or teens who have survived even the mildest of car crashes have been known to suffer from PTSD. They often do not want to ride in cars even if their parents are driving. They would rather walk or ride a bike to where they want to go rather than get inside a vehicle.

Teens with PTSD after a car crash also may simply want to stay home in an environment over which they feel they have the most control. They may obsessively fear that their parents, grandparents, or siblings might be harmed if these loved ones get in or drive a car themselves.

EVENT #7: House Fire

A house fire can trigger PTSD in everyone who survives such a disaster, but particularly teens who may have been inside the house or witnessed the blaze while it was occurring. Seeing their home get destroyed in a fire can leave teens feeling helpless and even guilty for their inability to protect their family, pets, and belongings.

In the worst cases of PTSD caused by a house fire, teens may experience trouble sleeping out of fear of the house burning down while they are resting. They also may irrationally believe that they smell smoke all of the time. In addition, teens who suffer from this type of PTSD may develop a fear of anything that burns, including candles or fireplaces.

EVENT #8: Natural Disasters

Natural disasters, like tornadoes and floods, can trigger PTSD in teens who are fortunate enough to survive such events. Teens with PTSD caused by a natural disaster might:

  • Dream frequently of storms and violent weather.
  • Obsessively watch the weather channels and news to find out what the weather has in store for their city.

Their PTSD may be triggered in the aftermath of such events by the sound of tornado sirens being tested during the noon hour or heavy rainstorms and hail. They may hide in the basement or under their beds until the inclement weather has passed.

Treating PTSD in Teens

Parents and caregivers understandably feel helpless and upset when they witness their teen suffer from PTSD. However, this condition is very treatable and does not have to negatively impact teens’ lives.

Treatment for teen PTSD might include:

1. Medication – Therapists and doctors may prescribe anti-depressants or anti-anxiety medications on a short term basis.

2. Therapy – Teens also respond well to group and individual therapy that allows them to chance to vent their emotions about the events that lead to the development of their PTSD.

With proper and prompt treatment, teens with this mental health condition can go on to live happy and normal lives. The treatment may only be needed for a short term basis and perhaps no longer than a year or two at the most. If your teen has experienced a traumatic event, contact a mental health professional to discuss your options for teen PTSD treatment.

PTSD in teens questions

In this article, we discussed some of the most common factors affecting teens and influencing PTSD. If you have more concerns about how can you prevent, recognize, and treat adolescents with PTSD, feel free to leave your comments or questions below. We’ll do our best to address your concerns and point you in the right direction for treatment.

About the author
Dr. Nalin is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist (PSY17766), a Certified Chemical Dependency Intervention Specialist and a Certified Youth Residential Treatment Administrator. Dr. Nalin is the Founder and Clinical Director of Paradigm Malibu and Paradigm San Francisco Adolescent Treatment Centers. He has been responsible for the direct care of young people at multiple institutions of learning including; The Los Angeles Unified School District, the University of California at San Diego, Santa Monica College, and Pacific University. He was instrumental in the development of the treatment component of Los Angeles County’s first Juvenile Drug Court, which now serves as a national model.
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