How to Identify Teens Who Might Be at Risk for PTSD

A study appeared in a recent edition of the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry which examined the question of what places teens at risk for developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The study was carried out through a research team at Boston Children’s Hospital which sifted through data on close to 6,500 teens and parents. The data analysis yielded several key risk factors among teens, including gender, types of trauma and pre-existing mental illness.

The researchers found that 61 percent of 13- to 17-year-olds examined had lived through at least a single potentially traumatizing life event. Traumatic events could be violence related. Things like being physically abused, sexually assaulted, raped or even witnessing violent acts committed against another person could traumatize a teen (or anyone). However, teens could be traumatized by being involved in injury accidents like a car crash as well. Having a family member or close friend pass away or living through intense natural disasters such as fires, floods or tornadoes could also trigger PTSD in teens.

The Boston team found that while more than 60 percent had been exposed to one such life event, close to 20 percent had endured three or more events. According to U.S. government reports, children’s services receive 3 million reported instances of abuse every year and around 30 percent (close to 1 million) of the reports prove to be true. Neglect accounts for 68 percent of those cases, followed by physical abuse (18 percent), sexual abuse (10 percent) and mental/emotional abuse (seven percent). Millions more (3 to 10 million) are witnesses of domestic violence and at least half of the time the child/teen was also a victim.

But not every teen that experiences these things develops PTSD. A teen may be more at risk for PTSD depending upon a few key factors. Risk factors can include the trauma’s severity and proximity, as well as parental response. Not surprisingly, teens involved in the most extreme traumas tend to show the strongest PTSD symptoms. On the other hand, having strong parents and a greater degree of family support can mitigate the potential risk.

The study found that the two greatest risk factors for developing PTSD were not having both birth parents living at home and having a pre-existing mental illness. Behavioral disorders and mood/anxiety disorders made teens particularly vulnerable. Of the 6,500 teens whose data was studied, 4.7 percent met the diagnostic criteria for PTSD. Girls (7.3 percent) were more at risk than boys (2.2 percent).

Experiencing personal violence was also a strong predictor for PTSD in teens. The condition showed up in 39 percent of teen rape victims and 25 percent of those who’d been physically abused by a member of the household. National studies reveal that three to 15 percent of girls and one to six percent of boys will develop PTSD, although these rates can be higher for specific types of life traumas.

When a teen experiences PTSD symptoms they usually dissipate with the passing of time.  However, some will continue to have symptoms long-term unless they receive treatment. Teens usually demonstrate more aggressive symptoms than either children or adults with PTSD, but there are effective means of dealing with the condition.

Cognitive behavioral therapy that is trauma-focused helps teach stress-lowering skills and re-adjusts worried thought patterns and beliefs. In the immediate aftermath of violence or natural disaster, psychiatric first aid has been successfully employed to reassure young people that it is quite normal to experience the emotions they may be feeling. The aid also helps teens to learn new problem-solving practices and calming techniques.