When your teen is living with trauma

Over the past few weeks I have heard too many stories of friends and classmates whose teenage children are living with trauma: teens who have classmates who have committed suicide or been murdered, experienced tragic family deaths, or family or community violence.

Many of the parents have reached out to their communities and other parents looking for resources about how to help their children or the children in their lives.

What is Trauma?

Let me first say that I am using the word ‘trauma’ as an umbrella term for the overwhelming events that can affect someone. I am not defining what is ‘traumatic’—though a working definition is that it is an experience or event that overwhelms your capacities to depend upon or protect yourself. The hallmarks of trauma are feelings of terror, horror and helplessness.

The body and mind have a specific set of responses to acute trauma to help you survive. When a traumatic event happens once, as in a car accident or a gunshot wound, the normal system of psychological defenses is temporarily overwhelmed. Like water breaking through a levee during a great flood, your body is flooded with adrenaline in such large amounts that the system actually builds new receptors to take in that extra adrenaline. When the adrenaline levels recede, the extra receptors create an ultra-sensitive environment where the smallest amount of adrenaline is immediately picked up by the brain and nervous system—producing what is known as the ‘startle response.’ While typically in Emotional Geographic I often address long term trauma, in this post I am specifically addressing a shorter term or acute trauma. 

For the purpose of this discussion any major blow to your teen’s experience of safety or constancy can be considered traumatic—there is no need for a litmus test. If you are witnessing them having a hard time or they are saying they are having a hard time—that’s enough.

How long will my teenager be affected?

Trauma affects everyone differently—there’s no ‘one-size-fits-all’ response because trauma affects you differently based on how you were before it hit: what level of stress you were under, your health, your stage of development, previous experience of trauma and the resources you have available to you.  Most parents want to know—“How long will my child be affected?” And that is a difficult question to answer. If you were in a car accident—there would be no ‘simple’ answer to, “How long will it take to recover?’ It would depend on how bad the accident was and how you were doing before the accident. If you were perfectly healthy and the accident wasn’t too bad, the recovery might be relatively quick. If you had just gotten out of the hospital from surgery, or had a previous traumatic brain injury then recovery could be months, or even years. Trauma is like a car accident for the emotional being. It is something that slams our emotions, our resources, our world-view, beliefs, and values. When it hits it can shatter our belief in relationships, trust, safety and ourselves. It is an invisible, internal wound. And it takes time, patience and caring to heal.

First Steps for Healing

Parents need to take care of themselves.

How are you? As their parent or other supportive adult in their lives, how are you doing with the trauma that occurred? In order to help your child, it’s important that you have some solid footing yourself. What do you know about the situation? How are you managing your stress? Who is supporting you? Before you help your child—make sure you have support for yourself. Make sure you are leaning on other adults in your life so that you feel as solid as possible.

Re-establish Safety.

Since one of the biggest casualties of trauma is safety—re-establishing safety is the first priority. And when I talk about safety what I am talking about is the feeling of safety that is created by routine and constancy. I am talking about safety in the most mundane way.  I am talking about the simple routines of a day: breakfast, school, sports or work, homework, dinner, bedtime. A traumatic event knocks the physical and emotional systems and they need to be taken care of. The very nature of trauma is that it catches you off-guard so it is important to create a schedule that feels predictable. Your teen will need rest, food, sleep, and an uncluttered schedule for a while. You may need to make their schedule lighter depending on their level of stress: not attending all of their scheduled appointments for a few days, leaving school early. These accommodations probably wouldn’t need to last very long. You know your child—you will know when they are back on their feet. But what if they can’t eat or sleep? I know that trauma can interfere with appetite and sleep, but you will need to do the best you can. Foods and liquids that the teen finds soothing and comforting initially—and then just your family’s typical food.

Regression is Normal

Trauma can and often does cause regression: teenagers may want to be closer to you than they did before, may need their stuffed animals again, may argue with you the way they did when they were younger. They may be more afraid of strangers or they may have a harder time separating from you. Transition times (leaving for school, coming home from school and going to bed) are more likely to be stressful. You may not have to do anything differently, but it can be helpful just to be aware of it. The main thing is—these shifts are a normal response to trauma. It is not unusual for any of us to slide back when we are under severe stress and your teen is no different. Growth and development take a lot of energy. We slide back to an earlier state so that we don't have to work so hard--we can use our energy for healing. Don't worry--this is temporary. When your teen starts to feel better she or he will begin to shift back. 

Turn off the TV or Media

When really traumatic things happen, there can be a lot of talk about it—at school, from family, on TV, on social media. While it is important to be able to talk about it if they want to, it is also important to be able to have a break from it too. If the trauma that happened is getting a lot of media attention—turn off the TV and limit the computer to homework. You already know what happened—you don’t have to relive it over and over. Repeating the trauma by watching again and again isn’t helpful. 

Breaks from the Trauma can Help

Healing and grieving is really an intermittent process—it can hit hard for a while, like a bad storm, and then it can recede. Sometimes, you just need to be able to take cover from it and watch a whole season of the Gilmore Girls or Friday Night Lights. Sometimes you just need to distract yourself from the bad things that have happened so that your brain and heart can have a rest. It’s okay. It’s not denying it happened—it’s taking a break so that healing can happen. It’s okay not to talk about it. Sometimes spending time with people who haven’t been affected by the situation can give some respite from it. Everyone will find different ways to take a break from it, but the important thing is to get a rest from it when you can.

Things that can support healing over time

1. Go back to the things you were doing before:

The good news is that there are so many things that support healing and many of them were part of your life before the trauma hit. Any activity that helps you stay physically active will help your whole system feel better: sports, walking, gardening, dancing. Connecting with communities who love and support you: family, neighbors, religious communities, sports teams, clubs. Your teen may not want to tell everyone what happened, or want to talk about it with them, but you can coach your teen to tell people that she or he has been having a hard time, or that something difficult has happened and they could use more support.

2. Write a letter that you can’t send.

For teens who have lost friends or classmates or loved ones it can be hard to feel like they can’t say good bye. Sometimes writing a letter to the person to say goodbye can help them connect their thoughts and feelings about the situation—they may find they are sad, or angry or confused. They can share this letter with you, with a counselor or with another trusted adult.

3. Give back.

Since trauma can make you feel helpless, one of the most healing things can be to feel helpful or useful. Once your teen is feeling more sturdy and is back to a more normal routine—they can take their experience and turn it toward the world in a helpful way: they can support a cause that their friend or classmate supported, they can raise awareness about suicide or family violence by raising money or volunteering, they can find out ways to create a stronger culture of safety at school or in their communities.

How will I know if my child needs more help?

If the lack of sleep or lack of eating goes past a week, contact your child's primary care doctor to rule out any medical issues that may also be complicating the healing process. In terms of knowing when to worry: I have found that when parents are really worried there is often good reason. It can never hurt for you to talk to a professional counselor or physician about your concerns. If the school is offering counseling about the event, talk to them about your concerns. You can work with the counselor to decide whether your teen could benefit from counseling. 

Will this affect them forever?

Yes it will, but probably not in the way you imagine. Most parents worry that their child will be scarred or harmed from the trauma—and that’s a realistic worry—but the truth is that it’s in life’s most difficult moments we also get to see a lot of life’s most amazing moments. This is a huge and difficult thing for your child, but the thing that they will take with them more than anything won’t be the tragic event, but how they were or weren’t supported in the aftermath of it. You and your community have the opportunity to help your teen see that in really difficult situations people can come together to support each other and heal. That healing takes patience, love and time. They can learn that people will stick with them, even when it is hard for them.  And they can learn what strength and resilience looks like: that we can make change in the face of terrible tragedies and do what we can to create communities of safety and health.

(All of these things will help adults too).

© 2015 Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD 

Other Blog posts that might help:

For younger children you can read this blog post I wrote about trauma following the Boston Marathon Bombing

Need to find a therapist. This blog post may help.

Understanding the Need for Slow Healing days.

Understanding that Healing takes Courage.

Further Reading: