Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental illness that can develop after someone has experienced or witnessed a traumatic event.
There are many signs and symptoms of PTSD in teenagers. If you notice any symptoms, it is important to talk with your teenage son or daughter about PTSD. Don’t wait for them to come forward first because they may be too ashamed to admit what they are experiencing. No matter how bad the situation seems, there is hope for healing from PTSD. The most important thing you can do as a parent is to listen and believe your teen if they tell you something has happened to them. It might be difficult to accept, but it is critical.
In this article, you will discover the most common symptoms of PTSD in teenagers.
10 Symptoms of PTSD in Teenagers
Post-traumatic stress disorder affects about 6.8 percent of people across a lifetime, with a prevalence of about 5 percent among adolescents, and a prevalence of 1.5 percent for symptoms with severe impairment (i.e. unable to function at home, school, or socially).
PTSD most often develops in response to natural and human-caused disasters and experiences of violence. As with most mental health issues, there is a range of symptoms associated with PTSD. Signs and symptoms of PTSD can range from restlessness and increased stress reactions, as well as general fatigue, to severe impairments that keep you from doing your job, being around for your friends, or having any time or interest for your hobbies.
The effects of PTSD are unique between individuals, but there are generalizations that apply across certain age groups. Adults will react to PTSD differently than children might, or adolescents. PTSD in children between the ages of 5 and 12, for example, may not involve re-experience symptoms, but can involve revisiting and re-enacting the trauma in the form of play.
PTSD in teens, on the other hand, involves more feelings of irritation and aggressive behavior than children or adults. Most other symptoms are similar to those that adults experience, but teens are more likely to lash out, or direct their anger inwards and commit to self-harm and substance abuse.
Among teens and adults, all major symptoms of PTSD can be categorized as either re-experiencing symptoms, avoidance symptoms, or agitation symptoms.
These include symptoms that center around re-experiencing their trauma in some shape or form. It might not necessarily be a single event, but it will usually be some sort of recurring trigger.
- Recurring Nightmares
Nightmares are a very common re-experiencing symptom for PTSD. In fact, research shows that it may be one of the most common symptoms. These differ from regular nightmares in that they typically occur earlier in the night – before deep sleep – and may cause more involuntary body movements while sleeping.
Like nightmares, these recurring scenarios take the shape of images, memories, thoughts, and episodes. They can occur without a trigger and can even cause some senses to go haywire – such as feeling, smelling, or hearing the things you felt, smelt, and heard during your trauma.
- Intrusive Thinking
Like flashbacks, these are recurring thoughts that are uncontrollable and unwanted, and make their way into the forefront of your mind without warning, and often without an identifiable trigger. Intrusive thoughts range from uncharacteristic and horrible ideas or urges, to remembering something unwanted, but not quite as vividly as a flashback or nightmare.
Where re-experiencing symptoms revolve around unwanted thoughts, avoidance symptoms are willful or subconscious efforts to block out the experience, and everything associated with it.
- Emotional Numbness
Emotional numbness may seem like a vague symptom, but it is identifiable and concerning. It can best be described as a dulling of the emotional senses. The person isn’t unfeeling, but will react softer, or less than before, may have a harder time expressing joy or sadness, and will be harder to reach.
Hypervigilance is another subconscious form of avoidance, in the form of elevated perception and reactivity. A person with hypervigilance will experience anxiety very quickly, as their fight-or-flight sense remains active and overstimulated. It can be incredibly tiring and can affect a person’s sleep.
- Antisocial Behavior
Antisocial behavior can be especially noticeable in teens with PTSD. A teen with PTSD may intentionally avoid their friends, will greatly reduce the amount of time they spend around others, will go out less, and will generally push others away, either indirectly or confrontationally.
- Avoiding Certain Places
While many symptoms of PTSD can occur without triggers, triggers do exist, and can exacerbate symptoms – even years later. These include certain smells, faces, places, and even sounds. A person with PTSD may intentionally or subconsciously avoid these things, taking longer routes to work or school, cutting out activities or places from their lives, and so on. While it’s healthy to remove yourself from a toxic situation, avoidance in PTSD is a form of maladaptive coping. You can learn to reacquaint yourself with these places and sensations without the associated stress and trauma, via careful treatment and professional exposure therapy.
Agitation symptoms are signs of a heightened response as a result of the trauma. PTSD can reshape the way the brain works in minor yet noticeable ways, especially when it comes to stress.
Our adrenal glands and amygdala play an important role in self-preservation, instinctual behavior, and stress responses, and PTSD can trigger these prematurely, or overstimulate the stress response. This can lead to aggressive behavior for no reason, extreme startle response, and panic attacks.
- Heightened Startle Response
This can be anything from reacting excessively to a tap on the shoulder, to flinching when being called by name. Certain actions, from sudden movement to something related to the trauma, may result in more of a startle response.
The stress of an overly active stress response can take its toll both physically and psychologically but can also disrupt sleep and rest. This causes a dangerous cycle where a person’s mood and mental state continues to deteriorate under less and less sleep, while their symptoms make it harder and harder to fall asleep and get an adequate amount of rest.
- Random Irritation
Another form of increased agitation is increased aggression, both towards others and towards oneself. While this may be a difficult symptom to quantify, random and completely unwarranted bouts of aggressive behavior and irritability can be a clear sign that something’s wrong.
PTSD can occur for many reasons, but the main neurological cause behind it is thought to be a result of overstimulation and trauma causing changes in the way the brain works and reacts to stress and stimuli. Another way of looking at it is like a psychological wound, only one that might not necessarily heal with time alone.
Understanding the symptoms of PTSD in teenagers – and how it might differ from adults – can help you better recognize signs of trauma in yourself and your loved ones and pick up on when you should consider seeing a professional. You don’t always need to experience a life-threatening situation to develop a reaction to trauma. Even something indirect, like the tragic loss of a loved one, can lead to a form of PTSD.
If you or a loved one is struggling with PTSD, seek help together. It’s a long road to getting better, and support matters.