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Written by:Kate Rosenblatt, MA, LPC, LMHC

Published On: March 11, 2022

Medically reviewed by: Jill E. Daino, LCSW-R

Reviewed On: March 11, 2022

Updated On: July 14, 2023


While it’s pretty common for a teenager to display moodiness and irritability, overexpression of these and similar behaviors might indicate a more serious mental health condition, like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). If your teen has witnessed or experienced a traumatic event, you might be concerned they’ve developed post-trauma stress.

They may be exhibiting signs such as:

  • Nightmares
  • Flashbacks
  • Excessive agitation
  • Detachment
  • Difficulty focusing in school
  • Avoidance

Here, we’re helping you understand the symptoms of PTSD in teens so you can help your teenager manage their condition and heal. Be forewarned, learning new skills takes patience and effort. It can be difficult for everyone involved. However, just being here, reading this right now, shows you’re up for the challenge.

Let’s examine PTSD and teens — the causes, symptoms, and the available mental health treatment options. Learn how to help someone with PTSD manage their condition.

Is PTSD in Teens Common?

PTSD in teens is more common than you might think. Although PTSD is commonly associated with war veterans and others who’ve survived terrible trauma, it’s quite possible for teenagers to experience it as well. In fact, research shows the following staggering statistics:

  • Up to 5% of teenagers between 13 and 18 years old experience PTSD
  • Teenage girls are about 3 times as likely to develop PTSD as teenage boys are
  • Roughly two-thirds of all teenagers will experience at least one traumatic event by the time they’re 16

Unfortunately, PTSD in teens is on the rise. This is why it’s so important to understand as much as possible about how PTSD might affect the teens in our lives.

Signs & Symptoms of PTSD in Teens

Just like adults, not all teenagers will experience signs and symptoms of teen PTSD in the same way. Everyone is unique. Sometimes the signs will be strong, and other times they might be very difficult to recognize at all. Some teens will hold their feelings inside more than others, making it challenging to understand what’s bothering them.

Here are some of the most common PTSD signs and symptoms in teens to watch for:

  • Being easily startled
  • Feeling constantly depressed
  • Being irritable and quick to anger
  • Having difficulty focusing on schoolwork
  • Refusing to talk about a traumatic event
  • Withdrawing from family, friends, and others
  • Experiencing flashbacks to a traumatic event
  • A sudden drop in grades or performance
  • Experiencing nightmares
  • Having trouble sleeping
  • Repetitively remembering or re-experiencing a traumatic event
  • Being easily triggered by anything that brings a traumatic event to mind
  • Avoiding anyone or anything that strikes up memories of a traumatic event

Note that these same symptoms are often associated with various other mental health conditions, like panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), social anxiety disorder, and others. That’s why accurately diagnosing PTSD can sometimes be challenging, even for healthcare professionals.

How Does PTSD Differ in Teens?

Teenagers tend to express PTSD symptoms similar to adults, with a few key exceptions. For example, teenagers might reenact traumatic experiences more than adults, acting impulsively and aggressively more often than adults.

PTSD in teens is severe. The symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder may present for several months after a traumatic event. Symptoms can often self-resolve after a period, but some teenagers may experience their symptoms for several years, or even all their lives, if they’re not treated.

Untreated PTSD can lead to severe psychological disorders, including:

  • Chronic depression
  • Chronic sleep disturbance
  • Insomnia
  • Inability to function in daily life
  • Increased risk of suicide
  • Increased risk of use of alcohol and illicit drugs

“PTSD can present differently in teens in general and it presents differently from person to person. Some teens struggling with PTSD might begin acting out of character — you might notice their grades are dropping or that they’re no longer interested in hobbies that used to make them happy. Other teens might appear to be fine, or you don’t notice any changes, but inside they’re really struggling to understand the trauma. However your teen’s PTSD presents itself, it’s important to continually check in on how they’re feeling and to continually open the conversation about how they can always come to you if they want to talk about anything.”

Causes of PTSD in Teens

Just like adults, PTSD in teens is caused by exposure to a traumatic event. It may be personally experienced or just witnessed, but it leaves a lingering memory behind. Sometimes it can be challenging for parents to understand what’s causing their teenager’s symptoms.

Some common causes of PTSD in teenagers can include:

  • Witnessing or being a victim of a violent act
  • Physical, sexual, mental, or emotional abuse
  • Childhood issues like divorce or abandonment
  • Watching a family member suffer from a disease
  • The death of a family member or other loved one — especially if it’s sudden or violent
  • Being involved in a car, airplane, or other accident
  • Natural disasters, including earthquakes, floods, tornadoes, and fires

How likely a teen is to develop PTSD largely may depend on how intense the trauma was, how many other traumatic events they’ve already experienced in life, and any pre-existing psychological conditions they may be dealing with. How much support is available to them can also factor into the equation.

Caregivers and parents play an important role in helping teens learn to cope with and heal from PTSD. Let’s examine some effective treatment options for symptoms of PTSD in teens, so you can help your teen recover from their trauma.

Treatment for PTSD in Teens

If you believe that your teenager might have PTSD, don’t lose hope. PTSD is a treatable mental health condition. Transformative progress can be made in a relatively short amount of time. The first thing to do is to get your teenager diagnosed by a mental health professional. You can call your pediatrician for a referral to a specialist in your area.

“If you have lived through an experience that felt traumatic to you, processing this with a licensed therapist or psychiatrist can be incredibly healing and supportive. Even if you feel ok right now, sometimes the impacts of trauma on our lives can lay dormant for some time until we feel safe enough to remember and process it. If we don’t process traumatic events, like COVID-19, abuse, neglect, bullying, the death of a loved one, and more, there might be some devastating future consequences. If you’re struggling with PTSD, know that you deserve help, and there is hope and help out there for you.”

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is often used to treat PTSD in teens. This therapeutic approach to therapy involves teaching teenagers to absorb thoughts and emotions as they develop. Doing so makes it possible to take action and limit their emotional responses. The goal is to anticipate, recognize, and proactively manage PTSD symptoms as they occur.

Short-term use of prescription medications including benzodiazepines, beta-blockers, antidepressants, and anti-anxiety agents, may also be recommended, especially at the beginning of treatment.

Regular communication with your teenager is very important for the healing process. Remember that many teenagers have difficulties speaking about their feelings. You may have to dig a little to get it out of them.

Patience is a virtue when dealing with PTSD and teens. Working with your teenager and their therapist will help to restore confidence and navigate triggers far more effectively. Online therapy is a great way to source the help your teenager may need.

The goal of treatment is to help your teen process the trauma they experienced so they can learn how to cope with it. In the long term, your teenager will gain experience and learn how to deal with life’s challenges with greater resilience, and that’s a lesson we all could use learning.

See References

Kate Rosenblatt, MA, LPC, LMHC

Kate Rosenblatt, MA, LPC, LMHC, was the Senior Clinical Manager at Talkspace until 2022, and is a clinical therapist licensed in CT and NY. A member of the American Psychological Association (APA), Kate completed her Master's degree in Counseling Psychology at Lesley University in Cambridge, MA. She has over 10 years of experience working with adults on a variety of issues, specializing in eating disorders and working with people going through life stressors such as finding your purpose, career changes, and connecting with your intuition.

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