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Dig into traumatic stress in teenagers

Most people believe trauma is a big, bad, terrible event that happens one unlucky day. However, welcome or not, trauma is present in more homes than we realize.

Trauma happens whenever something overwhelms our ability to cope. Unlike commonly known forms of abuse such as physical or sexual abuse, psychological maltreatment is a nearly invisible form of child abuse and neglect that often leads to complex trauma. Psychological maltreatment occurs when a child’s emotional needs are continually unmet. In daily life, this could mean chronic, offhanded comments telling your teen that they are “worthless, flawed, unloved, [or] unwanted”, feeding them doubt, threatening to kick them out, or hinting that your love and support are conditional. While these may be common practices heck, many parents were raised this way themselves the negative coping systems that often form in response to the accumulation of these small, cutting remarks is a form of trauma that we need to address in ourselves and our families.

But what does trauma have to do with my teen?

Traumatic stress can paralyze teens and disrupt the development of key skills like emotional and behavioral regulation. Teens who face overwhelming criticism, psychological maltreatment, or emotional neglect by a parent often perceive “overwhelming sense of terror, helplessness, and horror,” which compromises their psychological safety. Of course, trauma can also come from other sources, including the teens themselves, so it’s always important to watch for signs of trauma.

Chronic traumatic stress can contribute to posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in teens. It can also make the adolescent brain more alert to future threats at the cost of continual hypervigilance and intrusive thoughts. Unfortunately, without conscious attention during adolescence, the impact can be hard to undo as the parts of the brain responsible for fear and anxiety grow, while those responsible for logical thinking shrink. All this disrupts the development of key skills, like emotional regulation. This may explain the uncontrollable reactions some teens (and even adults) have to stress triggers, like bursts of rage and emotional meltdowns.

The unfortunate truth is many parents are unaware that they may be inflicting trauma upon their children. While this is a serious issue, it’s never too late to start giving conscious, loving attention to heal the inadvertent wound.

Here’s what to know:

1. Self-awareness is key

Research has shown a parent’s childhood extends into the next generation, and parents who experienced trauma (from a parent’s death to parents’ divorce) in their own childhood are more likely to have children with behavioral health problems. Parents who’ve experienced trauma are themselves more easily aggravated and are at greater risk for mental health challenges. So, be honest with yourself and/or your partner, and be aware of how you may cope with trauma. Some may find professional help helpful, but everyone’s healing process is different. You may want to begin by exploring a particular trigger you have and tracing its origins back to a belief, assumption, or experience you’ve had in the past. If no triggers come to mind, try to note the next time you are upset and pause to explore what is upsetting - that’s often a good first step to identifying a trigger.

2. Value your teen for who they are

Valuing your teen for who they are may be one of the best ways to prevent trauma. Helping them understand that they are, like everyone, a work in progress, can help them feel valued for who they are as a person. This way, they won’t judge themself purely by reaching external or unattainable expectations. Although you may want to push them to be their best selves, whether it means asking them to strive higher academically or for them to eat a more balanced diet, doing so without an adequate balance of reminding them how loved they are, just as they are, may be damaging to their self-worth and make them feel devalued. Be sensitive about your comments towards them as they can be immensely painful to overcome and damage their self-esteem -- intentional or not. A great way to talk about tricky issues like academics or eating is to approach goal-setting together. For example, ask them what they want to achieve this year at school, and how you may help them get there.

3. Be on the lookout for signs of trauma in your teen

As noted above, if your teen has experienced trauma, they may be hyper-sensitive to potential threats, and this may manifest in excessive anger or even more maladaptive coping mechanisms such as substance abuse, compulsive sexual behavior, self-mutilation, sleep disturbances, eating disorders, and suicide attempts. Trauma doesn’t just distract your teen from focusing on schoolwork or cultivating close friendships, it may also impair their ability to think about the realistic, long-term consequences of their actions. This may lead to outcomes like low academic achievement, impaired brain functioning, and depression.

While this may seem scary if you recognize any of these signs, it’s important to note that teens can recover from these issues, and it’s incredibly important to stay patient and help them feel safe in their own skin.

4. Social support

A warm, positive, supportive caregiving system at home is a critical protective factor against psychological maltreatment and the long-lasting consequences of childhood trauma. Teens who perceive high levels of social support after stressful events tend to have less trauma-related symptoms, including anger, depression, and anxiety. Some ways to show emotional support is to actively listen to them, express love and encouragement, and directly show that you appreciate your teen for who they are. Encourage them to talk about how they’re feeling, and discuss what’s activating their stress responses. However, if they don’t want to open up, respect their boundaries and make sure you give them space and time, and reassure them that you’ll always be by their side. You can also teach them to relax by practicing deep breathing. Lastly, help your teen cultivate strong relationships to other trusted adults in your social network, be it a teacher at school or a close relative. This is another protective factor and channel of support that can bolster your teen’s defenses against traumatic stress.

Ultimately, managing stress and preventing trauma in your teen starts with self-awareness. Sometimes, it’s important to be direct. Let your teen know how valuable they are to you, and give them the social support they need to feel that their needs are met. Stay tuned for our next piece about the full list of protective factors against trauma.

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