teenage trauma

By Meg Newman, LMFT

I have been working in the field of psychotherapy since 2002. At that time, I did my traineeship at Kaiser Permanente in the Chemical Dependency IOP working with adolescents and their families and separately with adults affected by chemical dependency. I stayed in the field of substance abuse treatment both with adolescents and adults in the form of primary residential treatment and intensive outpatient treatment. During this time, it was obvious that almost every client was affected by trauma as a result of their addiction or mental disorders. After becoming licensed and carrying a small private practice I moved over to the treatment of sexual abuse/assault survivors and educated adolescents about such issues. Providing this prevention/education program by the Rape Treatment Center to 7th graders gave the ones who were experiencing some form of abuse an opportunity to talk about the secrets, pain and shame they were holding in. It was a program that offered hope to some that felt hopeless and alone. I could hear them, validate feelings, and connect them with appropriate resources to advocate for their safety and protection.

Because brains are growing and changing into the early 20’s, intervention, in terms of stopping substance abuse and treating mental health disturbances, is essential because substance abuse creates new neuropathways in the brain. The longer someone self-medicates with substances, the more difficult it is to stop.  Early intervention offers other solutions to help deal with difficult feelings which often result from traumatic experiences.

There are several types of trauma that can affect children. There are single events like car accidents, the death of a loved one or a parent, natural disasters, or social traumas like bullying and there is also developmental trauma which is trauma that occurs by a caregiver or parent in the home which occurs over time. This can be physical and/or psychological abuse, physical or emotional neglect witnessing domestic violence, sexual abuse, etc… Developmental trauma can also be related to divorce, the death of a parent or loved one, or other types of loss or abandonment.

Developmental trauma that occurs over time affects a child’s ability to self-sooth and to feel safe in the world, with adults, and/or in their bodies. Responses to trauma affect cognitive, emotional, and behavioral processes in the adolescent. Some children’s reactions to trauma are immediate and some are delayed. Some effects of trauma appear as difficulty concentrating, stomach aches and headaches, anger outbreaks, difficulty with authority, aggressive behavior, or overly pleasing adults. Often substance abuse occurs or eating disorders can occur as an effort to soothe the nervous system that otherwise is sensitive to mood fluctuations. Often there is a presence of shame and over-responsibility for the trauma. Lack of self-esteem, change in grades, change is friends, school attendance and relationships may all be outward examples of the effects of trauma on a child.

When to Get Help

It is time to intervene when you notice that your child’s overall behavior and spirit are being affected. The external indicators are grades dropping, truancy, anger outbursts, isolating to their room, emotional withdrawal, change in friends, sexual acting out, using drugs and alcohol, difficulty with authority, cutting, and other forms of self-harm. Internally, your child may be struggling with mood swings, and feel hopeless or helpless.

When Weekly Therapy Isn’t Enough

Have you tried to help by putting your child in therapy and feel like there hasn’t been a change? Sometimes outpatient therapy is enough and sometimes it is not. If your child is participating in risky behaviors like the ones named above and they seem to be getting worse, not better, they may need more support than they are getting. After experiencing a trauma where boundaries of safety have been violated or witnessing another’s boundaries of safety violated, adolescents may have not felt safe, and a child may not understand how to keep themselves safe o the importance of keeping themselves safe, so risky behavior escalates.

How We Work

Our approach to trauma here at Ascend is that one size DOESN’T fit all. There are many types of psychotherapy that address different issues. Some work on changing the behavior to change thoughts and feelings, and some work on understanding the past to make insightful connections as to why things are the way they are. Some work on changing destructive patterns of thought in order to change behavior. When it comes to trauma, we know that it is a visceral experience that is held within the body. We have developed a program that presents cognitive and behavioral interventions as well as offers somatic-based and experiential therapies to engage various parts of the brain and nervous system to work toward integration. We teach and practice skill building with meditation, yoga, art, and writing to help kids integrate tools which help calm them when distressed. We offer EMDR to work with fragmented memories and intrusive thoughts and images. Most importantly, we teach kids to be mindful about what is happening inside and empower them to have control over their bodies.

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