What Causes PTSD In Teenagers? Signs, Symptoms, And Treatment

Medically reviewed by Majesty Purvis, LCMHC
Updated April 29, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article on PTSD in teenagers might mention trauma-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Do you have a teenager that seems to be experiencing the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)? If so, you might be wondering what could be causing them to feel this way. The truth is that there are many aspects of a teenager’s life that could lead to events that cause PTSD or the development of PTSD symptoms. The most important way to support your teenager through this experience is finding them the help they need, which can make all the difference in helping them work through their trauma and live a full and happy life.

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Support your teen as they work through PTSD challenges

What is post-traumatic stress disorder?

First, let's back up a little bit and discuss what PTSD is. PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, occurs when someone has witnessed or experienced trauma. Traumatic experiences can cause symptoms that interfere with a person’s functioning and cause distress in their daily life. Experiencing a mental health condition such as PTSD can be even more stressful for teenagers than for adults, as teenagers are often already experiencing emotional tumult due to hormonal shifts and life changes.

Diagnosing PTSD and PTSD symptoms

Teens may exhibit some PTSD symptoms that are similar to those that affect adults, while they may experience other symptoms in a manner that more closely resembles the experience of a child. No matter what, if your teenager is experiencing symptoms of PTSD, you're going to notice changes in their behavior and possibly in their speech patterns or emotions. If your teen has gone through a traumatic experience, it is important to watch for any of these changes. Keep in mind that your teen may also experience trauma you are unaware of.

PTSD symptoms in young people typically include avoidance of situations that remind them of the trauma, nightmares or flashbacks about the trauma itself, nervousness and anxiousness, emotional numbness, difficulty focusing in school, and impulsive or aggressive actions.

Any or all of these symptoms could be signs that your child has experienced trauma and is struggling with PTSD as a result. Even if you are unsure if there has been trauma in your child's life, it's important to talk with a doctor and a mental health professional if you notice any of these types of behaviors in your child. These behaviors include acting out or speaking out in ways that are inappropriate for their age group (including sexual knowledge they should not yet have, which could be an indication that they have been sexually abused, one of the most common causes of PTSD in children and teens). Untreated PTSD symptoms can result in more significant mental health conditions later in life, including substance abuse, so early PTSD diagnosis and intervention is crucial to giving your child the best shot at healing and moving on from their trauma. 

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Causes of PTSD in teens

Teenagers can experience the same traumatic events that an adult can, and such events can affect teenagers in many of the same ways. As mentioned before, traumatic events may take a heavier toll on a teenager. After all, a teenager is a child, and they are likely to respond to traumatic events in similar ways to children, whether they try to act like an adult or not.

Violent physical or sexual assaults, including rape, can be some of the most significant triggers for developing PTSD as a teenager. Teenagers do not necessarily have to be the survivors of the assault to be affected. Teens who have witnessed an assault or its aftermath or those who know someone who has been assaulted could also experience trauma and PTSD as a result.

Acts of violence, including school shootings, are other examples of situations that could result in PTSD. Youth who survive such a situation could experience severe PTSD and may experience different types of triggers that remind them of the terrifying event.

Car accidents and natural disasters can be extremely difficult for teenagers to experience because they tend to happen without warning. Even events that don't cause extreme devastation could result in trauma for a teen or child simply because of the suddenness of the event and the resulting fear.

Experiencing military combat or being present in a military zone can also be traumatic for children. Children who have grown up in combat zones or who have experienced war and war-like trouble within their community or near their homes will often develop PTSD.

Finally, youth who are diagnosed with life-threatening illnesses or care about someone with a life-threatening illness may experience PTSD as they deal with their thoughts and emotions. These individuals may be struggling to understand the diagnosis and what it's going to mean. PTSD can be caused by many things, from indirectly witnessing something harmful to directly experiencing the most severe traumas. Whether or not someone develops PTSD symptoms will depend on many factors, including their personality type, genetics, biology, access to a supportive social network, and many other factors.

Overcoming traumatic events

In some instances, individuals of all ages can overcome trauma entirely on their own. Others may appear to be healthy and functional, but still need mental health assistance even if they say that they are “fine” and they don't want any help.

If you know your teen has experienced a traumatic event, it is important to connect them with mental health care providers. Even if your teenager tells you that they don't need the help or don't want it, there is only so much support parents, family members, or other adults can provide for a child who has experienced trauma. Receiving help when it's not necessary is always better than taking the risk of not providing your child help when they do need it.

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If you notice behavior that seems out of place or that seems symptomatic of PTSD, even if you are unaware of any specific trauma your child has experienced, you should also seek out mental health help for them. It's possible that they experienced trauma that they aren't telling you about or an event that they don't fully understand as a traumatic experience. Talking with a mental health professional will allow them to express themselves in a space where they feel safe, and to communicate their thoughts and feelings in a positive way so they can start processing their emotions. 

Medication and therapy

Once you connect your child with a mental health professional, the provider may recommend different types of PTSD treatment. Your child’s treatment plan may include both therapy and medication. 

Therapy for PTSD could consist of cognitive processing therapy, exposure therapy, or eye movement desensitization and reprocessing. It could also include play therapy, depending on the age of the child in question. These types of therapy help your teenager to work through what they witnessed or experienced and to better comprehend their thoughts and feelings related to the traumatic event. For younger children or those with developmental disabilities, it can be especially difficult to understand these experiences, and therapy can make a significant difference.

Medication is often used in conjunction with other types of therapy because it can help to ease some PTSD symptoms. Youth who experience anxiety or depression as part of their experience with PTSD, for example, may find medication helpful. These medications can also make it easier to talk to a therapist about the experiences they had and to understand what it's going to take to work through it all.

Finding professional help

If your teenager is demonstrating the above or other signs of PTSD, it's a good idea to set up an appointment with a mental health professional, regardless of whether or not you’re aware of a traumatic event in their past. A therapist will be able to talk with your teenager about what they're experiencing and help you to understand if there is a trauma that they need to work through. With the help of therapy, your child may be able to reduce their symptoms much faster than if you had left them to cope with their PTSD on their own, without support.

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Support your teen as they work through PTSD challenges

Takeaway

If your teenager may be experiencing PTSD, the most important thing you can do as a parent is to connect your child with a professional who can assist with their specific needs. BetterHelp can be a helpful option for finding support for PTSD symptoms, and the variety of contact options available through online therapy may provide the most convenient healthcare option for you and your child.
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