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Discussing Trauma and Violence with your Teen

Adolescents in the United States are routinely exposed to violence and other potentially traumatic events. According to the National Survey of Adolescents (a study that collected data from over 4000 adolescents ages 12-17), four out of ten adolescents have directly witnessed violence, 17% have been physically assaulted, and 8% have experienced sexual assault. Additionally, exposure to violence and traumatic events is even higher for some teens, including those from marginalized or oppressed groups. While violence in the news and on social media has been a concern for some time, the recent increase in the sharing of videos containing police brutality, school violence, and hate crimes has many parents wondering:

  • What impacts can trauma have on my teen?
  • How do I discuss topics like violence in the media with them?
  • How can I help my teen who has been affected by trauma?

What impacts can trauma have on my teen?

Trauma affects every individual differently. While the large majority of people who experience a traumatic event do not develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), children and adolescents who experience trauma are at a higher risk for developing this disorder. For example, 75% of children who experience a school shooting, and 90% of children who are sexually abused, develop PSTD. Trauma interferes with a teen’s cognitive and social development. An enormous amount of energy is required for the teen to process and cope with traumatic events, which leaves fewer resources available for the already demanding experience of adolescence. Because of this, teens with a history of trauma are more likely to struggle in school, have trouble forming close relationships, and are more likely to engage in risky behavior.

How do I discuss topics like violence in the media with my teen?

Some families struggle with how to approach topics like police brutality or school shootings, or how to evolve these conversations as their child becomes an adolescent who is developing their own opinions and values. Teens are consuming an unprecedented level of violent imagery via news and social media, and many parents are also wondering about the impacts of viewing videos of police brutality, experiencing racial incidents firsthand, and fear about hate crimes, terrorism, or school violence. A good starting place is to invite your teen to share their thoughts and feelings about what they have been experiencing, reading, or viewing in the news and online. Creating an atmosphere of safety and trust will allow your teen to share if they are feeling confused or overwhelmed. Provide reassurance that you are also learning, but that learning together and discussing these topics as a family creates safety and connection, which are antidotes to trauma. A trained therapist can also become a team-member in discussing trauma and violence to help you and your teen talk through your worries and concerns, and find additional resources when needed.

How can I help my teen who has been affected by trauma?

We have a team of experienced clinicians who specialize in adolescent mental health, who can help your teen through the complex process of resolving trauma. Meanwhile, helping to create an environment of supportive safety where your teen can find acceptance and consistency at home is essential. Additionally, the National Child Traumatic Stress Network and Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration offer free education materials for parents and caregivers with children affected by trauma.

Sources:

Kilpatrick, D.G., Ruggiero, K.J., Acierno, R., Saunders, B.E., Resnick, H.S., & Best, C.L.  (2000).  Violence and risk of PSTD, Major Depression, Substance Abuse/Dependence, and comorbidity: Results from the National Survey of Adolescents.  Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psycholog, 71, 692-700.  doi: 10.1037/0022-006X.71.4.692.

Gunaratnam S., Alisic E.  (2017)  Epidemiology of Trauma and Trauma-Related Disorders in Children and Adolescents. In: Landolt M., Cloitre M., Schnyder U. (eds) Evidence-Based Treatments for Trauma Related Disorders in Children and Adolescents.  Springer, Cham.

Hamblen, J.  (1999).  National Center for PTSD FactSheet: PTSD in Children and Adolescents.  White River Junction, VT: National Center for PTSD.

June 5, 2020
Katey Nicolai, PhD

Katey Nicolai, PhD

Katey Nicolai, is a licensed clinical psychologist who received her PhD in Clinical Psychology from Seattle Pacific University. Dr. Nicolai provides services to adolescents and adults using evidence-based treatment rooted in cognitive-behavioral and psychodynamic therapies, including Dialectical Behavior Therapy, interpersonal therapy, and family systems. Dr. Nicolai has specialized training in treating trauma and PTSD, personality disorders, self-harm and suicidailty, family problems, emotion dysregulation, and mood and anxiety disorders. In addition to her work with UpLift, Dr. Nicolai is a co-owner, psychologist, and assessor at Lumos Assessment Services, which focuses on empowering underrepresented populations to achieve success in traditionally inequitable academic and career environments.

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