What to Know About PTSD in Teenagers

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The teen years can be an intense and tumultuous time. While it’s common for teens to be moody and irritable, sometimes they can develop mental health challenges that are serious and need to be addressed.

If your teen witnessed a traumatic event or had a traumatic experience, you might be wondering if they may have developed PTSD. They might even be showing signs of PTSD, such as flashbacks to the event, nightmares, increased agitation, emotional numbness, or trouble concentrating in school.

Managing PTSD in a teenager can be very difficult for all involved, but just the fact that you are concerned is a positive and hopeful first step. Let’s take a look at PTSD in teenagers—its signs and symptoms, what causes it, and what treatment options are available.

How Common Is PTSD in Teenagers?

PTSD is experienced by anyone who has been exposed to trauma, including witnessing violence, natural disasters, accidents, shootings, or being a victim of sexual or physical abuse. Traumas such as losing family members, divorce, and abandonment, can also cause PTSD.

Unfortunately, children and teenagers are not immune from traumas and can experience PTSD as a result of a traumatic experience. It’s estimated that as many as 5% of teens aged 13 to 18 experience PTSD. Girls are more likely to experience it than boys. The prevalence of PTSD is about 8% for girls and 2.3% for boys. Some researchers estimate that PTSD is actually slightly higher in the teen population than in adults.

PTSD in teenagers is something to take seriously. While it’s true that symptoms of PTSD may be particularly high in the months after a traumatic event and recede after that, teens may experience these symptoms for years, if not treated.

Untreated PTSD can have severe consequences, including chronic sleep issues, depression, substance abuse, and struggles to work or function in daily life. Additionally, there are associations between PTSD in teenagers and increased suicidal ideation.

If you or a loved one are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Symptoms

Everyone experiences PTSD a little differently. Sometimes the signs of it will be more obvious; at other times, teens will experience the symptoms more internally and it will be more difficult for an outsider to identify symptoms.

Here are some of the most common signs of PTSD in children and teenagers:

  • Flashbacks to the traumatic experience
  • Constantly remembering or re-experiencing the event or experience
  • Increased nightmares
  • Insomnia
  • Feeling “numb” and depressed
  • Easily triggered by things that remind them of the traumatic event
  • Increased anger and irritability
  • Prone to being easily startled
  • Withdrawing from friends, experiences they used to enjoy
  • Having difficulty in school, including trouble concentrating and completing work
  • Not wanting to talk about the traumatic event
  • Wanting to avoid anything or anyone associated with the trauma

How Do Symptoms of PTSD in Teens Differ From Adults?

Symptoms of PTSD in teens more closely resemble PTSD symptoms in adults than in younger children.

At the same time, teenagers with PTSD may participate in “traumatic reenactment” (the act of integrating characteristics of their trauma experience into their lives) more than adults. Teens may also show more aggressive behaviors and act on impulse more frequently.

Causes

Just like in adults, PTSD in teens is caused by a traumatic event or experience. These traumas may be clearly known to parents, such as when a teen witnesses violence or a natural disaster. But other traumas may not be as well defined—and even remain unknown to a parent—such as when a teen is sexually abused or is in an emotionally abusive relationship.

Some of the most common causes of PTSD in teens include:

Tragically, the number of children experiencing trauma in childhood or adolescence is significant. About two-thirds of children will experience at least one trauma by the time they are 16 years old. The older a child is, the more likely they are to experience more than one traumatic event, thereby increasing the likelihood of developing PTSD.

The probability that a teen will develop PTSD is dependent on a few factors, including how intensely they were exposed to the traumatic event, how many traumas they have already experienced in their lifetime, any preexisting mental health conditions they may have, and how much support they have as they process their trauma.

Diagnosis and Treatment

There is hope for teens who have PTSD. Proper treatment can help them process their trauma, learn to cope with it, and come out of the experience with greater resilience.

If you suspect your teen has PTSD, your first step is to get a diagnosis. You can do this by visiting your child’s pediatrician, who may give you a referral to a therapist or psychiatrist. If it’s clear that your teen is experiencing PTSD, therapy will likely be recommended.

Therapies that can successfully treat PTSD in teenagers include:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. This involves helping your teen understand their thought patterns and emotional/physical reactions to the trauma, and offers tools to help them cope.
  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). This uses specific eye movements along with cognitive therapies to work through traumas.

Teenagers may also benefit from medication, in addition to therapy. Medications used to treat PTSD in teens include antidepressants, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) as well as anti-anxiety medications.

It’s important to keep in mind teens may have trouble talking about what they are feeling, or the traumatic event or experience that triggered their symptoms. Finding a mental health professional with who your teen feels comfortable is key.

Sometimes you will need to try a few different providers until you find one whose personality matches well with your teen’s.

A Word From Verywell

If you are the parent or caregiver of a teenager who is showing signs of PTSD, it’s understandable that you would feel anxious and upset about what you are witnessing, and want to do anything in your power to help your teen feel better.

The good news is that parents and caretakers have an important role to play in their teen’s healing. Not only can you help your teen find the care that they need, but research shows that teens who have parental support are more likely to fare well when faced with PTSD.

Thankfully, while PTSD in teens is serious and needs to be addressed, there are effective ways to treat it, and teens with PTSD can go on to live full and happy lives.

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6 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Barnett E, Hamblen J. PTSD in Children and Adolescents. National Center for PTSD. Updated September 16, 2019.

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  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Post-traumatic Stress Disorder in Children. Updated March 22, 2021.

  6. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration. Understanding Child Trauma. Updated October 8, 2021.