Emotional trauma can affect anyone, whether they’re a child, teenager, or adult. However, a parent should understand how to relate to their child in the case of an event that has left them traumatized. By working out ways to work through and overcome the negative emotions of the event together, parents and teens can foster a healthier relationship, learn valuable problem-solving skills, and get back to the normalcy of their lives faster.
What Constitutes Trauma?
The basis of a traumatic event differs, according to Palo Alto Medical Foundation (PAMF). Some are more common occurrences that almost everyone will have to deal with at some point in their lives, such as the death of a friend or relative. Natural disasters like floods, hurricanes, and tornadoes are also a bigger reality than in the past and something that families may have to prepare themselves for. Other situations are less common but sadly do occur, such as accidents, violent incidents, and sexual assault or rape.
How Does a Teenager React to Trauma?
The way that anyone reacts to a traumatic event will differ from person to another. The length of these feelings also differs, as someone may feel upset for a few days or weeks while others may suffer for months or even longer. As a parent, you should monitor your teen to make sure that they’re recovering well from the traumatic event after it takes place.
You should also look out for a slew of reactions. Some may make more sense than others, but all are valid expressions of grief, anger, sadness, or distress. According to Better Health, an Australian health resource, these include:
- Insistence on being alone and ignoring classmates, friends, and family
- Depression, sadness, and hopelessness
- Feeling guilty, angry, upset, or anxious
- Not sleeping regularly or waking up frequently throughout the night
- Reckless or rebellious behavior such as skipping class, going out late at night without a parent’s permission, and even dabbling in substances like drugs or alcohol
- Hobbies and other points of interest no longer appeal to the teen
- Pushing boundaries in an attempt to gain more independence
- Difficulty working on the tasks at hand
- Short-term memory
- Continuously and obsessively thinking about the event
- Talking about the event a lot to parents and others
- Sudden outbreaks of anger or strong emotion from small triggers
Your teen may experience some or all of these symptoms. They may hide their emotions well and appear to not be exhibiting any of these reactions to a traumatic event. In that case, you should try to encourage your teen to talk to you, a teacher, or a counselor about their feelings, since they are likely bottling them up.
Better Health notes that during this time, a teen may not want to talk to you for a number of reasons. These include:
- They’re still dealing with the immediate aftermath of the traumatic event
- They don’t want to think about the event
- They don’t want to appear weak in front of you or the rest of the family
- They’d rather speak to their friends or classmates about it
- They’re seeking a distraction
- They don’t want to make you mad or sad
- They aren’t sure how you’ll react and don’t necessarily want your advice
- They aren’t sure you’ll understand how they feel
- They can’t quite explain how they feel
When Should Parents Step in to Help After a Traumatic Event?
Although during this time a teen can become a closed book, that doesn’t mean that you should give up. If you don’t encourage your teen to talk to somebody about the traumatic event, arguments and other troubles can erupt in the household. This only stresses the teen out more and makes them want to speak to you less in the future.
Therefore, it’s very important to speak to your teen as soon as you can after the traumatic event has transpired. According to PAMF, you can try a few different tactics and strategies for getting through to your teen soon after the event transpires. These include the following:
- If you can clearly explain why a certain event happened, like a death of an elderly family member or a violent incident, do so to the best of your ability so that your teen can gain some clarity
- Explain that it’s natural for your teen to feel sad, upset, and angry during this time
- Tell them that you’re available to listen to how they feel if they’re ready to discuss it with you; remind them that you won’t push them to talk but will let them explain their feelings freely
- Provide love and reassurance
- Remind your teen that what happened was not their fault and that they could not have prevented it
- Encourage your teen to show emotion if they feel comfortable doing so
- Try to slowly return to a normal schedule and home life to provide comfort in that way
How Can a Parent Help a Teen Overcome a Traumatic Event?
These early steps can really make a big difference in the life of a traumatized teenager dealing with the upsetting aftermath of an incident. Sometimes these steps above are enough for your teen. With your encouragement and lack of judgment and through allowing them to use you as a sounding board, they may work out their feelings about the incident and feel better with time. In some cases, you may have to continue with the above steps for a longer period of time. Be patient during this difficult experience.
According to PAMF, in some cases your teenager may develop what’s called traumatic stress. These include prolonged feelings of shame, guilt, anger, sadness, or upset even after the incident has occurred.
In order to prevent traumatic stress from negatively affecting your teen too much, teach them tips to reduce both worrying and anxiety. Teach your teen about self-talk, the way that they relate to themselves and what is happening around them. This inner voice should be positive, but after a trauma, it can completely change. Once your teen implements more positive thoughts into their daily lives, their self-talk should regulate itself and they should feel better. Remind your teen to take everything a day at a time, and that they can indeed survive this ordeal.
To further prevent worrying, teach your teen that stress is a perfectly natural reaction to a negative event. A teen should not try to keep themselves from stressing out or feeling bad, as this in turn can cause more stress. The natural stress that a person feelings after experiencing something terrible does fade with time.
In some cases, a teenager may experience anxious reactions, like nervousness, tense muscles, and a faster pulse and heartbeat, according to PAMF. In this case, you should teach your teen how to relax when they feel such undesirable symptoms. Breathing techniques, muscle relaxation, yoga, and meditation can all help these symptoms pass and allow your teen to feel centered and calm.
Relaxing muscles involves a process of getting comfortable, constricting individual muscles one at a time all over your body for at least five seconds, and then releasing the muscle constriction. As a teen does this, they and their body will feel calmer. As for yoga, it doesn’t always involve intense poses. Instead, a teen can stretch and learn to breathe better to experience relaxation. If a teen wants to meditate, then they can start by sitting in a quiet place, closing their eyes, focusing on breathing, and letting thoughts go for a period of five to 10 minutes.
When Should a Parent Let a Professional Step In?
Sometimes though, even after you do everything that you can for a teen, including allowing them to talk about their problems, being there for them, and teaching them to deal with their worries and stresses, your teen still seems traumatized. Sometimes this is natural. A teen may take a long time to get over a traumatic event depending on what it is. For example, a death of a close loved one or a sexual assault can really torture a teen for a while.
However, if you feel that a teen hasn’t progressed in feeling better after some time, you should enlist the help of a professional, like a psychiatrist, a doctor, a counselor, a mental health professional, a psychologist, or a therapist. If your teen seems depressed, extremely anxious, upset all the time, is doing badly in school, is abusing substances, or has self-harmed or expressed suicidal thoughts, you cannot wait to get them help.
PAMF notes that in support groups and therapy sessions, a teen will discuss big obstacles they’re still dealing with after the traumatic event, why they still feel the way they do, and how to return to a normal and fulfilling life.
According to Better Health, it’s natural for your teen to switch back and forth between seeming okay with the traumatic event sometimes and then very upset about in during other times. However, if your teen doesn’t seem to be getting better at all, they do need help outside of what you can offer them.
In the case of severe trauma, like after a sexual assault, a teenager may experience post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. Your teen may have flashbacks to what they experienced, not be able to sleep, and feel as though they’re forced to go through the event again and again. In this case, therapy can best help your teen work through their PTSD. Many therapists offer trauma-focused options that help the teen deal with their symptoms, work through feelings of upset, and regain their quality of life.