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January 16, 2014
by LuAnn Pierce, LCSW

Teens and Trauma

January 16, 2014 02:55 by LuAnn Pierce, LCSW

Teens exposed to trauma may act out or shut down – it depends on his/her temperament, coping style and personality. As we discussed about younger children, there is no way to predict how one will be affected by stressful or traumatic events, but the resilient behaviors and attitudes learned in early life may protect them to some extent.

When we think about traumatized teens, school shootings, suicide pacts, abductions, natural disasters and other public displays of violence or terrorism come to mind. However, most teens will not experience those incidents directly.

The traumatic stresses that are more likely to affect teens are interpersonal acts of violence, aggression or threats. This may be date rape, dating violence, bullying, harassment by a peer or adults, coercion or threats of violence, psychological and emotional blackmail and others.  

Secondary Trauma

The loss of control or inability to protect oneself or another may result in trauma. Secondary trauma can occur when kids (or adults) witness secondhand violence or other traumatic events. This includes kids who hear or see a parent being abused, media accounts of brutality and violence and other indirect violence or abuse. For this reason, it is important in the wake of traumatic events like 9-11 to limit exposure to the media.

My niece was about 10 years old when 9-11 occurred. She lived in Tennessee at the time, in a small rural town unlikely to be targeted by terrorists. I saw her a couple of years later when we were both visiting my sister in Charlotte, North Carolina. She and I went on an outing, and on the way home we drove near downtown Charlotte. When she saw the tall buildings, she began to get very anxious and panicky.

As I talked to her about her sudden fear, I realized that she associated all tall buildings with the burning twin towers. Apparently, she had watched the accounts of 9-11 repeatedly, and like thousands of other Americans, she had become traumatized. I had an opportunity to help her with her anxiety by giving her some facts about terrorism and 9-11. By doing so, she was able to replace irrational thoughts and fears with less frightening truths. She could then calm herself when those media images came up by recalling more rational facts to combat her panic.

Other Ways to Help Traumatized Teens

Besides giving teens factual information to replace irrational thoughts and fears, here are some other ways to help. 

·         Limit exposure to media in the wake of national tragedies. Media accounts of tragedies are designed to sell advertising, so they focus on the most stressful aspects of a situation and often give incorrect information.

·         When the initial excitement has subsided, get the facts and talk about the facts with your older kids and teens. It is okay to censor this type of information to protect your kids from the sensationalism. Don’t falsely assume they can handle everything on prime time television.

·         Develop daily rituals that offer your teen a chance to talk about his/her day. You are more likely to find out about things that are bothering him/her with indirect conversation where the pressure to disclose is minimal. I have found that kids and teens are more likely to talk about stressful things when they are not making direct eye contact. Talking casually while driving in the car or doing other activities are great times to check in with your kids.

·         If your teen discloses about something stressful that happened, be a good listener. Try not to overreact. Observe his/her behavior for signs of trauma.

·         Take thoughtful and purposeful action if you have concerns about your teen. It is very important to manage your reactions so you do not create more problems. One reason teens don’t like to talk to their parents about stressful issues is because they are frightened by their parents’ emotions.

·         Follow the same recommendations for teens as for younger children if you notice behaviors that are out of character – especially in the wake of a national event, natural disaster or a disclosure of a potentially traumatic event. This includes keeping to routines as much as possible, letting the school know about the situation, keep the discussion open by making yourself available to listen and others.

·         It is possible that your teen will not talk to you about interpersonal acts of violence or threatening behavior. You may need to rely on your own instincts with regard to a teen who exhibits a pattern of behavior that could indicate a problem. Err on the side of caution. Try talking to him/her (without nagging). If the changes in behavior or mood persist, make an appointment with your medical provider for a thorough physical. Follow up with a counselor if things don’t improve. There are many reasons a teen would not tell someone about abuse or other traumatic stressors. Try not to create more stress. Present your concerns as just that – the concerns of parent or friend.

·         If you notice a drop in grades, suspect new or increased use/abuse of alcohol or drugs, signs of depression or other red flags, reach out to a counselor sooner, rather than later. These are usually signs that something is wrong. Perhaps s/he will talk about it to someone who is not emotionally involved.

·         If there are any statements that hint at thoughts of suicide, act immediately. Take your teen to the local mental health center or emergency room to be evaluated by a professional. It is critical to get professional help in this situation. If you are concerned about transporting your child, call 911 or the number for emergency assistance in your community.


"Trauma and Teenagers - Tips for Parents." Better Health Channel. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Aug. 2013.

"Helping Teenagers Cope After a Traumatic Event." N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Aug. 2013.

"Help Your Child Manage Traumatic Events | Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA." Help Your Child Manage Traumatic Events | Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Aug. 2013.

About the Author

LuAnn Pierce, LCSW LuAnn Pierce, LCSW

I offer solution-focused counseling to people in Colorado and Wyoming from the comfort of your own home via teleconference or telephone.

LuAnn Pierce, LCSW can be found at
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