Teenagers who have experienced trauma can be psychologically wounded by what they have seen, felt or endured. Yet, they do not always receive the attention, support and care that they would have if they had been physically wounded or were ill. The result is that the stress of the experience and the weight of suppressing their distress can bear down heavily on them, causing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

The impact of Post Traumatic Stress on teens is far-reaching, affecting their behaviour towards their parents, their performance at school and their socialisation with friends. Though teenagers are capable of expressing that there is something wrong, they often don’t. Parents and caregivers should take note of changes in behaviour, sleeping patterns and even the physical appearance of youngsters who have been through something traumatic.

This is advice from Ilse de Beer, psychologist at Ilse de Beer Psychology. She describes a traumatic event as a sudden, unexpected, extraordinary occurrence that is overwhelming or life-threatening to the individual or people around them.

“It could be witnessing or being involved in a violent crime or motor vehicle accident. Post-traumatic stress can also be caused by being exposed to community violence, peer suicide, sexual or physical abuse, natural disasters, diagnosis of life-threatening illness and the sudden or unexpected death of a loved one.

“Every individual experience events such as these differently. The physical and short-term emotional effects such as tearfulness, fear, anxiety, feelings of emotional numbness or grief are widespread. In young people though, there is a tendency to try to shrug-off the experience, be tough, to dust themselves off and carry on. However, experiencing trauma can eventually overwhelm or disable a person’s normal coping mechanisms. Long after the event, they might begin to feel anxious, sad, fearful or stressed, but they might not be able to recognise the origin of these feelings. Parents, teachers and caregivers have a role to play in helping adolescents to recognise their feelings as well as pinpoint the cause.”

Teenagers who are suffering from Post Traumatic Stress may show regression in behaviour, loss of interest in school or peer activities, sleep disturbances, problems with appetite or eating disorders, sadness or depression, antisocial behaviour, poor impulse control and aggression. Some will also have an increase in psychosomatic complaints such as headaches, appetite problems and stomach aches while others might display a lack of pride in their appearance.

“We also find that teenagers become more critical of themselves and maybe judgmental about how they reacted to the traumatic event. Phrases like ‘I should have done that’ and ‘I could have prevented it’ or ‘I wish I had done more’ are often used. Primarily, they blame themselves for how things happened as well as their inability to recover. This affects their self-esteem and when left unaddressed becomes an entrenched core belief,” says de Beer.

She believes that the most critical support group for a traumatised teenager is the family.

“Your family is the first port of call for emotional care and support. Look out for signs of distress in your teenager, especially if they had a traumatic experience.

“Encourage your child to speak about what has happened, ask them to describe what they’re feeling and listen carefully to what they say. If possible, include the whole family in the discussion. It is essential to acknowledge their feelings and let them know that all reactions to trauma are normal. We all have our ways of coping with trauma, and we do what we need to do to survive. Try to be understanding and tolerant. You can help your child cope by understanding what causes their anxieties and fears.

“As adults, we tend to forget that fears in young people also stem from their imaginations. When talking with your child, make sure to present a realistic picture that is rational, honest and manageable. Importantly, let them know that life will eventually return to normal,” explains de Beer.

She concludes saying that most of the time, people gradually recover from trauma over time, with stress relief, adjustment, acceptance, healing and through speaking about the experience. However, some do require professional help.

“Depending on the severity of the trauma that was experienced, how the parents reacted to it and the presence of other traumas and personal stressors, teenagers might need to be counseled by a psychologist. When it is clear that your teen may need outside help, don’t ignore it. Seek the help they need.

“Remember, the teenage years provide the physiological and psychological foundation for adulthood. It is a period of tremendous physical, emotional and mental change. Carrying Post Traumatic Stress through this already turbulent time is exceptionally cumbersome and can impact negatively on their lives into adulthood.

“In acknowledgement of National Child Protection Week, from 31 May to 7 June, don’t leave teens to feel left alone.”