How Do I Know If My Teen Has Suffered Trauma?: The Impacts of Age on Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Teenagers are unique beings. Their worldview, wants, needs, and problems are different from adults and children. The anthem of “You just don’t understand” is likely very familiar to most teen caregivers, and when it comes to trauma; they may be right. While conclusive research has yet to be done, the prevailing hypothesis and evidence says that posttraumatic stress looks different at different ages. Teenagers in general tend to straddle the line between childish and adult behaviors, and the manifestation of their symptoms of trauma is no different.

What are the Risk Factors for Teen PTSD?

In every age group there is a quality called resiliency, which is a huge determiner of whether or not someone who suffers trauma will develop PTSD. Resiliency is the ability to process, understand, and recover from the traumatic incident. Some factors that affect teenager’s resiliency are:

  • the quality and type of parent-child bond before the traumatic incident
  • the severity of the trauma
  • parental reaction to trauma
  • child’s perceived and actual proximity to the trauma
  • being female — girls have a higher prevalence rate than boys
  • compound trauma or previous history of trauma
  • preexisting mental health issues
  • low social support
  • parental psychopathology
  • person on person violence — sexual assault, domestic violence, bullying

Each of these risk factors alone could take up an entire article, so if there are questions about any of them, please feel free to ask us.

How do Teens React Differently to Trauma?

Teens tend to have very different reactions to traumatic stress than adults. They may not have flashbacks or trouble remembering, which is a common symptom in adult PTSD. They may put events in the incorrect order. They may think that things that happened leading up to the trauma were “signs”, and look for these signs as future warnings. They may believe that if they pay attention, they can avoid experiencing the trauma again. They have a tendency to show more impulse control problems and aggressive behavior in response to trauma. They may select “play” activities that recreate the trauma in some way, i.e. violent video games or scary movies. None of these signs are conclusive evidence of trauma alone, but they do highlight differences between teens and adults or children.

While no two reactions to trauma are identical, there are certain reactions that are more common than others. These reactions can occur in any age, but are very common in teens. One of the most common is noticeably lowered self-esteem. They may also display a lack of trust in others or irrational and new fears such as a fear of the dark, or fear of being alone. Additionally, teens that have suffered trauma may become much angrier than they were previously.

What Should Parents and Caregivers Watch For?

Distinguishing between normal developmental behavior and a cry for help can be difficult. Remember that these signs would be a marked and more extreme shift in behavior.

  • Changes in Sleep Patterns– If all of a sudden your teen develops insomnia, or can’t seem to get out of bed in the morning, there may be something else going on.
  • Out of Place Sexual Behavior — This does not mean sexual behavior that parents disagree with, this means behaviors that are out of the norm for teens of their age, and out of the norm for that particular teen.
  • Drug and Alcohol Abuse — This is a hard one because the teen usually hides it, and it is common for teens to experiment. Sudden and immediate changes and/or increases in drug and alcohol use can be a hallmark of trauma.
  • SelfHarm — Cutting, burning, self mutilation, none of these are normal behaviors, not even for teens, and they are usually an indicator that something more is going on.
  • Aggression — Sudden intense aggression, or major changes in aggressive behavior can be a huge indicator of trauma in a teen.
  • Avoidance — Has your teen started avoiding things they used to enjoy?
  • Changes in School Performance — Rapid fluctuations in grades and attendance are signs of problems under the surface.
  • Friendship Problems — Unusual changes in friendships and friend groups are normal for teens experiencing trauma.
  • Loss of Interest — Sometimes a teen will begin to lose interest in their favorite activities, sports, hobbies, etc.
  • Any Other Self Destructive Behavior — Teens with significant trauma often engage in reckless or destructive behaviors. They may also show a change in eating patterns such as restrictive eating or excessive bingeing.

What Do I Do If I Think My Teen has Experienced Trauma?

If you think your teen has experienced something traumatic, first remember that children and teens are very resilient, and many will recover from a traumatic incident on their own within a few months. Frequently, kids and teens will show a few or no symptoms for years without treatment and then suddenly experience an explosion of symptoms for no apparent reason. If either of these scenarios sounds familiar, as a caregiver you may need to get your teen some help. When looking for a clinician for your teen, it is important to find someone with whom both you and your teen feel comfortable with, and who has experience working with you child’s age group. You may also want to look for an EMDR trained therapist. EMDR is one of the most highly recommended treatment options for individuals who have experienced trauma.

None of this is easy to deal with, and there are no clear cut answers. If you think your teen is suffering from unresolved trauma, or you don’t know what to do after a traumatic incident, please feel free to call us at (760) 942–8663. If you have questions regarding this article, please feel free to comment below, or email us at

Reannon Kerwood, MA, IMF 73596

Clinical Intern

Coherence Associates, Inc.

How Do I Know If My Teen Has Suffered Trauma?: The Impacts of Age on Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Originally published at on March 21, 2016.

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