What a Traumatic Situation is Like for an Adolescent
With the help of their friends, adolescents begin a shift toward more actively judging and addressing dangers on their own. This is a developing skill, and lots of things can go wrong along the way. With independence, adolescents can be in more situations that can turn from danger to trauma. They can be drivers or passengers in horrible car accidents, be victims of rape, dating violence and criminal assault, be present during school or community violence, and experience the loss of friends under traumatic circumstances. During traumatic situations, adolescents make decisions about whether and how to intervene, and about using violence to counter violence. They can feel guilty, sometimes thinking their actions made matters worse. Adolescents are learning to handle intense physical and emotional reactions in order to take action in the face of danger. They are also learning more about human motivation and intent and struggle over issues of irresponsibility, malevolence, and human accountability.
Posttraumatic Stress Responses
For reasons that are basic to survival, traumatic experiences, long after they are over, continue to take priority in the thoughts, emotions, and behavior of children, adolescents and adults. Fears and other strong emotions, intense physical reactions, and the new way of looking at dangers in the world may recede into the background, but events and reminders may bring them to mind again.
There are three core groups of posttraumatic stress reactions.
First, there are the different ways these types of experiences stay on our minds. We continue to have upsetting images of what happened. We may keep having upsetting thoughts about our experience or the harm that resulted. We can also have nightmares. We have strong physical and emotional reactions to reminders that are often part of our daily life. We may have a hard time distinguishing new, safer situations from the
traumatic situation we already went through. We may overreact to other things that happen, as if the danger were about to happen again.
Second, we may try our best to avoid any situation, person, or place that reminds us of what happened, fighting hard to keep the thoughts, feelings, and images from coming back. We may even “forget” some of the worst parts of the experience, while continuing to react to reminders of those moments.
Third, our bodies may continue to stay “on alert.” We may have trouble sleeping, become irritable or easily angered, startle or jump at noises more than before, have trouble concentrating or paying attention, and have recurring physical symptoms, like headaches or stomachaches.
How Development Influences Posttraumatic Stress Responses
Age, developmental maturity, and experience can influence posttraumatic stress reactions. More than twenty years of studies have confirmed that school-age children and adolescents can experience the full range of posttraumatic stress reactions that are seen in adults. We might wish to believe that children under five years of age are too young to know what was happening and whatever impression was left would be forgotten soon. However, recent studies show that traumatic experiences affect the brains, minds, and behavior of even very young children, causing similar types of reactions as seen in older children and adults.
Young Children. It is extremely difficult for very young children to experience the failure of being protected when something traumatic happens.