Teens, Trauma and Trust

“Trust is one of the greatest gifts that can be given to a teen who is overcoming PTSD- trust in themselves to be a responsible caretaker of their own bodies, and trust in the world to shine a positive light on them.” – Shantara Howell, Therapist at Moriah Behavioral Health

In 2014, Congress designated the month of June as PTSD Awareness Month in an effort to educate veterans, active military service members, the medical community and the general public about the symptoms and causes of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

When we think of PTSD, we typically think of people who have served in military combat, or first responders, or perhaps survivors of violent crimes or natural disasters. Experiencing or witnessing a life-threatening event, with or without enduring physical harm, can lead to a prolonged period of stress that disrupts daily life.

Because PTSD describes the lingering effects of time-limited, life-threatening traumatic events, most people do not think adolescents are likely to experience such an event or develop symptoms. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, PTSD can occur at any age, but may present differently depending on age, gender, social supports and trauma history.

Moriah’s CEO Mendi Baron says the events that adults may find less consequential may have a significant impact on teens due to the disproportionate value they place on events in their lives.

“People assume that kids and teens will ‘get over it’ and that what they see from teens emotionally is normal,” Mendi Baron says. “This fails to recognize that being a teen in and of itself requires facing multiple fronts. They are dealing with peer pressure and family pressure, as well as brain and body development. Put a mental health struggle on top of that, and you are essentially creating a battlefield experience for someone with no training,” he says.

With teens in particular, therapists at Moriah Behavioral Health say clients with PTSD often experience a lack of self esteem, along with difficulty trusting others and the world around them. Trouble concentrating, loss of interest in activities, difficulty sleeping, and substance use are all common symptoms for adolescents with PTSD.

Moriah’s Clinical Director Dr. Julia Kannard says trauma-focused therapy is the key to rebuilding adolescents’ trust within themselves and their surroundings.

“Through trauma work, we are empowering our clients to reclaim the authority of themselves – mind, body, and spirit,” Dr. Kannard says. “We help them to find new meaning in the experiences they’ve endured.”

Group Specialist Yasmine Jacobs says clients can present differently based on the type of trauma they’ve experienced. Adolescents can utilize maladaptive coping strategies as ways to manage the feelings they are experiencing, and as a way to ask for support as they are navigating and learning to understand these feelings.

“In the clinical role, it is important that we help them develop proper self-advocating skills,” Yasmine says.

Moriah Therapist Kat Tullius says the part of the brain that is associated with processing emotions, like fear, forms before the part of the brain that processes reasoning. So the teen is more anxious, fearful, and reacts significantly quicker to perceived danger.

And while people think teens with PTSD may become violent, they are actually more likely to become a victim of violence rather than the aggressor.

“Teens can retraumatize themselves very easily if not taught about how their brains are responding to the trauma.” Kat says.

Those who work in the behavioral health field know that PTSD is a complicated and often misunderstood issue in mental health. It can look like ADHD, or borderline personality disorder, or anxiety from an acute stress disorder. However, Moriah’s therapists say the most common misconception about teens and PTSD is that it can’t be treated.

Yasmine Jacobs says it is often believed that individuals with PTSD cannot change because the trauma has already occurred, but she says children, adolescents and adults really do have the power and strength to turn it around and become resilient survivors and thrivers.

Alumni Program Supervisor Hannah Rawson works with clients and families as they continue their lifelong healing journey upon completion of Moriah’s residential and PHP/IOP treatment.

“Through my time at Moriah, I have witnessed clients work through their trauma via therapeutic intervention and significantly reduce PTSD symptoms,” Hannah says. “Our clients are able to live more manageable lives once their trauma is addressed.”

Kat Tullius agrees that one of the biggest mistakes we can make with teens is assuming their brains cannot heal.

“The neuroplasticity in the teenage brain helps teens to adapt to their environment and helps to rewire the brain after a traumatic event or events,” Kat says. “Early intervention with a strong therapist specializing in trauma is critical.”