Recognizing the signs of trauma in youth

By Carolyn Yoder | March 16th, 20121 comment

(Photo by Rachel Titiriga via Flickr)

If you live or work with young people, it’s likely that you’ve felt their enthusiasm when a good idea catches their imagination, or listened to their laughter and banter as they hang out with friends.

But you may also observe behaviors that concern you: irritability, anger, aggressiveness, withdrawal, feeling sad, substance abuse, cutting, or getting in trouble with the law.

The root of distress in young people can be trauma, the result of experiencing or witnessing something that involves a threat to survival. Or the trauma can be from growing up in an unsafe environment where layers of trauma are undercurrents that can explode on a daily basis.

Viewing young people’s experiences and behaviors through a trauma lens provides a way of understanding them, and of knowing how to reach out in supportive ways.

Big T and little t traumatic events

We tend to think of traumatic events as the dramatic Big Traumas,” ongoing events such as war, or living under occupation or in a violent community or with an abusive parent; and one-time happenings like an accident where someone dies, or being raped, or seeing a murder.

But young people are also impacted by “little t traumas,” events that are often not recognized as threatening or traumatic by adults. These might include:

  • Dad angrily belittling mom as the teenager listens helplessly from the bedroom
  • A teacher publicly making comments that shame or humiliate the young person, or watching her do it to others
  • Painful medical or dental procedures, especially those in which the persons is immobilized or feels trapped
  • Intense pressure to do well in school, get into a good university, contribute to the family income, or live up to rigid societal expectations

The common denominator of traumatic experiences, whether big or small, is that they are experienced as an overwhelming threat to survival of our bodies, minds or spirits. One feels powerless and alone.

Acting in and acting out behaviors

It is not news that hurting people hurt people. Sometimes we hurt others, but the person we hurt may be our self, too. This is true for adults as well as young people.

Here are some examples of behaviors that we see in young people who are living with unaddressed trauma, especially if trauma is an ongoing part of their lives.

Acting in
Turing the unreleased trauma energy in on oneself
Acting out
Turning the unreleased trauma energy out on others
Self-injuring behaviors such as eating disorders, cutting oneself, risky sexual activity, substance abuse Aggression, bullying
Depression turned in on oneself: sadness, hopelessness, withdrawal, loss of interest in things that previously brought pleasure Depression turned out on others: anger, blaming, irritability
Physical symptoms such as headaches, muscle aches, digestive problems, pain Involved in repetitive conflicts.
Getting in trouble with the law

We can’t prevent youth from having traumatic events; trauma is part of the human experience. But we can reduce the chances that they will be traumatized by providing ingredients that build resilience:

  • Education that normalizes what they are experiencing
  • Tools to deal with the physiological overwhelm trauma induces in the body and brain
  • Safe spaces to voice troubling thoughts and questions
  • Conflict transformation skills to counter powerlessness

These interventions break the isolation that makes traumatic experiences so disorienting. We let our youth them know that we care, and that they are not alone. Life will always bring challenges, but the isolating hurt can be broken and laugher and enthusiasm return.

One Response to "Recognizing the signs of trauma in youth"

  1. James Wheeler says:

    My wife and I just spent the weekend conducting a trauma awareness workshop at our church. We covered much of what is written in this article, so it is fresh in my mind. Thanks for this good, consise article. I will probably refer to it in future workshops. Thanks for the work that you do in bringing awareness to such an important issue.