This is Part #1 of a 3-part series for youthworkers on responding when young people experience trauma. Responding to trauma such as accidental death, natural disasters and community events may not be something that we spend a lot of time training for as youthworkers, but some basic pointers can help guide you in uncertain times and give you a reference point. For those of you who have dealt with teenagers in responding to trauma, I’d love you to add your ideas, experiences and reflections to the benefit of others.

#1: Identifying Trauma and Recognizing the Potential Impact. Focusing predominantly on what various trauma experiences can look like & the symptoms or behaviour you might expect.

#2: Managing Impact. Looking at helpful first steps in allowing a young person to effectively deal with trauma experience as best as they are able, including questions around spirituality & future security.

#3: Self-care & The Walking Wounded. Dealing with trauma first-hand, looking after yourself to better care for others and when a whole community suffers trauma or loss.

I knew something was wrong the minute he walked into the room. My usually bright, energetic (too energetic) teenager was quiet, shaken and withdrawn from the group. But identifying the difference between the sudden onset of adolescent mood swings and the residual impact of a trauma he had experienced days prior took a period of hours and a totally dishevelled youth group night.

Trauma looks different from kid to kid, family to family. Partly it has to do with definitions within your own community, family unit, church environment and even the part of the world you live in. No one community has ‘normal’ in common. But for this week’s conversation, in light of earthquakes, tsunamis, bus accidents and drownings that have all occurred in the last week – we’re talking about the experience of trauma: where a person’s life is endangered and they experience feelings of fear, terror and helplessness. These feelings may come from being physically attacked, a serious accident, sexual assault or a natural disaster such as an earthquake, flooding or fire.

Most people who experience trauma, experience it once in a lifetime therefore don’t know what to expect or how to understand what is happening to them. It is extremely common for people who have experienced trauma to have one or many symptoms depending on their life experience, natural ability to cope with stress, support networks and how serious the trauma is. How quickly someone can receive professional help in dealing with the aftermath of trauma can also have an impact on recovery.

Recognizing Trauma

Any significant change in ‘usual behaviour’ for a teenager (or any young adult) is always a sign that something is changing, especially when there has been a traumatic catalyst. In addition to extroverted kids suddenly becoming withdrawn and vice versa, the signs of trauma can present in the following ways (although this list is not exhaustive nor a diagnostic tool)..

  • increased agitation and paranoia, fear or anxiety
  • flashbacks that make you feel as if the trauma is repeating
  • nightmares or bad dreams, as well as general sleeplessness
  • trouble falling or staying asleep
  • increased anger or aggressive behaviour (usually a response to feeling the need to defend oneself)
  • heightened triggers/memories that can lead to a person being upset
  • trouble controlling emotions
  • greater dependence or use of substances such as nicotine, alcohol, drugs or sex

Physical symptoms can also include

  • shakiness or excessive sweating
  • hyper-alert senses
  • feeling agitated and ‘on the look out”.
  • trouble breathing or having your heart race/pound

Other Types Of Trauma

In addition to first hand experience of trauma, children, teenagers and young adults are particularly vulnerable to other experiences of trauma ie: observing or being involved in domestic violence, losing a close friend or family member to a serious accident or force of nature. Compounding trauma, such as experiencing an earthquake and then repeated aftershocks, or long periods of viewing traumatic news footage ie: 9/11 or the Japanese tsunami can result in the some of the same feelings of helplessness, fear and terror.

What A Young Person Might Feel… Shortterm

Young people won’t necessarily connect the trauma they have experienced with the symptoms, feelings or behaviours they exhibit, but they may display behaviours or relate feelings such as:

  • avoiding conversations, places, activities and people that remind them of the trauma
  • forgetfulness or memory blanks of parts/all of the traumatic experience
  • feeling emotionally numb or emotionally shut down
  • trouble displaying or accepting loving feelings or any strong emotions
  • feeling strange and/or disconnected from people around you
  • feeling disconnected from the world around you and things that happen to you
  • avoiding situations that might lead to a strong emotional reaction
  • feeling physically numb
  • not feeling pain or other sensations
  • losing interest in things you used to enjoy
  • taking more risks than usual ‘just to feel alive’
  • actively avoiding trauma-realated thoughts, people, memories

When a young person displays or conveys feeling this way, it is often a good sign that some trauma has been experienced. This kind of reaction is often common in the “avoidance” phase of post-trauma recovery. These are symptoms most commonly experienced soon after the traumatic experience.

What A Young Person Might Feel… Longterm

  • depression – especially when avoidance of situational reminders leads to isolation
  • despair & hopelessness that they’ll never feel ‘normal’ again
  • questions & doubt around important beliefs, values they hold dear (losing faith that the world is a good and safe place)
  • ongoing aggressive behaviour towards themselves or others, usually from a frustration over a lack of control or recovery from post-trauma symptoms.
  • self-blame, guilt and shame around lack of ‘getting over it’, or the trauma itself
  • relationally disconnected because of trouble connecting/expressing emotions
  • feeling permanently damaged, like they ‘can’t’ recover from the incident
  • self-esteem feelings
  • lack of trust in others
  • physical health issues can arise from longterm anxiety or agitation
  • longer term substance abuse

So.. now that we have covered some basic symptoms, tomorrow we’ll focus on helpful responses in each stage of post-trauma recovery.

The most important thing to be aware of, is how to equip a young person to verbalize what they are feeling or ‘not’ feeling. Helping young people to do the following is key to helping them ‘recover’ and what part #2 is based on.

  1. identifying the trauma and accepting what happened.
  2. identifying the behaviour/feelings that are trauma-related.
  3. accepting that the symptoms are completely normal and recoverable.
  4. putting in place some basic responses to help the recovery process.