PTSD not only war veterans’ disease; here’s how it affects teens

The mention of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) generally brings to mind images of veterans struggling with the stress of overcoming their devastating war-time experiences. While this may be considered the most widely known form of PTSD, the onset of the disorder can take place due to various non-combat reasons as well. This mental disorder may affect people across age-groups, including children and teens. Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), like physical/sexual assault, domestic violence, accidents or natural disasters, and witnessing a loved one’s death can all contribute to the development of PTSD.

Michael Coleman, a former social worker in North Carolina, spent 13 years as a government representative, investigating foster care in the state. “There’s physical abuse or sexual abuse,” said Coleman, recounting his experiences. “There’s pretty severe neglect in cases.” He remembers visiting homes with children bleeding, and interviewing kids who had received bruises at school. He observed that these victims exhibited symptoms of PTSD, some of which mirrored the “classic symptoms” of the disorder typically associated with war veterans.

Although estimates of PTSD among children and adolescents vary, references to past studies by the National Center for PTSD (NCPTSD) indicate that 14-43 percent of boys and 15-43 percent girls experienced at least one trauma. Of these children and adolescents, 1-6 percent of boys and 3-15 percent of girls developed PTSD. Certain categories of trauma survivors had a higher risk of PTSD. However, diagnosis of PTSD among children and adolescents can be difficult.

Physical, psychosocial symptoms of PTSD

Many times, symptoms of PTSD start manifesting themselves in physical and psychosocial ways among adolescents and teens. Besides the recurring flashbacks and nightmares, other common symptoms exhibited by children and teens include:

  • Hypervigilance
  • Inexplicable complaints of headache, stomachache and other similar conditions
  • Depression or low mood
  • Inability to sleep well
  • Weight gain/loss
  • Lack of concentration, especially in school
  • Avoidance of social contact, especially with regard to people, places and discussions associated with the trauma
  • Risky, aggressive or self-destructive behaviors

Past research from the Stanford University School of Medicine and Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital found that children with PTSD experience a reduction in their hippocampus, the region of the brain which controls memory-related functions. “Post-traumatic stress is not only about the traumatic memories; it really affects daily living,” said lead author Victor Carrion, director of Stanford’s Early Life Stress (ELS) research program.

A highly impaired hippocampus was found to be strongly correlated with symptoms, like feelings of detachment and lack of emotion. The reduction in the hippocampus was also linked to higher levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. A reduced hippocampus can inhibit the ability of children to process and deal with traumatic events, which can, in turn, increase both stress and cortisol levels that may lead to greater damage, resulting in a vicious cycle being established.

PTSD-affected individuals can recover with treatment

The onset of PTSD may be determined by the cumulative experiences before the traumatic event, the nature and intensity of the trauma, as well as subsequent, unrelated incidents after the trauma. Stress experienced after the traumatic event, even if it is unrelated, may affect PTSD symptoms. In case of children and adolescents, symptoms may diminish on their own after a few months. However, if left untreated, PTSD can impact the development of children’s brain and increase the risk of substance abuse and other mental illnesses like depression.

Two widely used options for treating PTSD include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and medications. CBT has been found to be the most effective treatment for children and adolescents. Other options include eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) and play therapy. Selecting the right treatment option is not easy, which makes it important to refer to qualified mental health professionals for advice.

As one of the leading therapeutic boarding schools of the United States, White River Academy helps boys aged between 12 and 17 years recover from mental disorders, including PTSD disorder in teens. Call our 24/7 helpline or chat online with one of our experts to know about the best options for teen PTSD disorder treatment.

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