As a teen therapist and young adult counselor, I have encountered a trend with a certain percentage of the teens and young adults I work with. Teens and young adults can talk about being depressed. They can explore the anxiety they feel and how panic attacks and social anxiety are rocking their world.
Yet when it comes to exploring the potential or the possibility of having had experienced trauma in their lives, which may underlie the depression or anxiety, there can be high resistance to acknowledging that they have experienced trauma.
Why is it that they can talk about all these other challenging topics but refuse to explore trauma in their lives?
How the Word Trauma is Used Today
What is your perception of the words "trauma", "traumatized", or "traumatic"? You may find yourself thinking of examples of truly traumatic incidences. And you may also have examples of seeing people talk about being "traumatized" because they got a B on their history test. Eye rolling ensues.
The word "trauma" tends to be overused in today's society. It's become a buzzword among teens and young adults to describe any distressing experience.
There are plenty of experiences that are distressing, upsetting, nerve racking, etc. Yet in today's world, it seems that any slight offense or something that causes sadness, anxiety, or stress will be captured as traumatic on Instagram, Facebook, or other social media pages.
I'm not downplaying the impact that distressing events have on a person. Many of those events simply may not meet the definition of trauma. They are situations where after a short period of time, the person resumes functioning at normal levels.
In teen therapy and young adult counseling, I've had teens and young adults emphatically deny having trauma. They experienced events in their lives that meet the definition, but because it's been overused, they believe that if they acknowledge trauma, it means that they are "weak".
They also compare their experience to more intense traumatic experiences like physical, emotional, or sexual abuse. Because they may have not had these experiences, in their minds, this means they have not experienced trauma or that what they experienced isn't that bad.
While I am thrilled that mental health is being widely talked about in the media and social media, the overuse of the word trauma has done a disservice. Those who truly have experienced a traumatic event may not seek treatment due to the stigma around trauma.
What is Trauma?
Trauma is defined as any experience that overwhelms one's emotional system interfering with a person's ability to cope. A traumatic incident is also something that is perceived as threatening to a person's life, body, or emotional integrity.
Often, it's not our intellectual part of our mind that registers the experience as being traumatic. It is our limbic or emotional part of our brains. The limbic or emotional brain does not think in logical, rational terms. It thinks in emotional, life saving terms.
So if a person has an experience and the limbic or emotional part of our brain perceives it as traumatic, it will be stored in that part of the brain and carries with us throughout our lives.
So, while a teenager may get a bad grade on a test or even fail a class, while it's distressing, it would not be traumatic.
A teenager being grounded from their phone will tell you it's traumatic. They may even act as if taking away the phone will end their lives. Yet is it really traumatic?
A young adult may have had their heart broken due to a breakup. While this is certainly distressing, it may not meet the definition of traumatic.
The key to identifying trauma is the ongoing impact it may have on a person's ability to cope or function at previous levels. We rebound from distressing events.
Traumatic events leave an indelible impression on our limbic, emotional brain and impacts our ability to cope or function on an ongoing basis.
Common Presentations of Trauma in Teen Therapy & Young Adult Counseling
There are teens and young adults who start teen counseling or young adult therapy with a clear picture of the trauma they have experienced. These teens and young adults are able to identify the traumatic experiences and how they impact their lives. These teens or young adults start trauma therapy or PTSD treatment specifically targeting the trauma.
Other teens and young adult may start therapy for other reasons to later find out that today's reason may be tied to yesterday's experiences.
Teens and young adults may start out therapy wanting to address ongoing and unrelenting challenges such as:
It is not uncommon to start working on depression, anxiety, social anxiety, panic attacks, etc. only to uncover early life experiences that, at the time, overwhelmed their emotional system. These experiences also may have felt or have been perceived as threatening to life, body, or their internal sense of self. This is the definition of trauma.
There are a variety of factors that can result in an experience being traumatic for one person while the same experience not being traumatic for another. One prominent factor can be age.
Why Does Age Matter?
Our brains develop from back to front and from inside to out. The last region of our brain to develop is the frontal lobe. The frontal lobe is where analytical thought and reasoning is managed.
The frontal lobe for males is fully developed by about age of 25. For females, their brains develop faster and the frontal lobe is fully developed by about age 21.
The experiences in our world and their meaning are very much filtered through our own mental interpretation of the events. As a result, age does matter due to where our brains are in their stage of development.
A 7 Year Old's Interpretation of Divorce
A 7-year-old may experience a divorce of parents differently than a 17-year-old. While the experience is the same, the interpretation will not be.
It is not uncommon for a 7-year-old to view divorce as their fault. Some of the thoughts and feelings for a 7-year-old whose parents are divorcing could include:
If I had only cleaned my room better they wouldn't have divorced
If I had only done better in school they would still be together
I must be a bad son/daughter, if I were good enough, they would still be together
If I were loved, they wouldn't divorce. Something must be wrong with me
The brain of a 7-year-old is not developed enough where they can analyze the divorce. They simply do not have this ability at this age.
They also do not have the verbal skills to clearly articulate what they are feeling and thinking. It becomes difficult for a 7-year-old to process the impact and events of the divorce to resolve the emotions they have internalized.
As a result, a 7-year-old may move on with life yet carry around with them this inner felt sense of being that they are broken, unworthy of love, or not good enough.
A 17 Year Old's Interpretation of Divorce
A 17-year-old's brain has developed and has much better executive functioning. A 17-year-old may interpret the event more accurately as a result.
While it sucks that their parents are divorcing, they often understand that the divorce is not their fault. A 17-year-old is better able to understand the reasons behind a divorce.
They are also able to more clearly articulate the thoughts and feelings they are experiencing. This allows them to process the thoughts and emotions around the divorce.
Because of where their brains are in their development, teens are better equipped to not internalize the divorce as being something that is caused by them.
Early Life Trauma Can Get Stuck
Both situations, being the same, have a different impact depending on the age. The 17-year-old may be able to bounce back after time and the thoughts and emotions do not overwhelm their system.
Yet the 7-year-old may carry with them internalized shame and guilt. They likely cannot process and analyze the situation. They certainly do not have the verbal skills to process their thoughts and feelings.
They may believe at their core it's their fault. As they grow and have not been able to develop an analytical narrative around the divorce, the shame and guilt for it being "their fault" can get stuck in that limbic, emotional part of the brain.
It's not uncommon for a younger child who experienced trauma to grow up with the overwhelming guilt, shame, and a feeling that something is wrong with them. Their childhood can seem fairly unproblematic. Then the teen years hit.
Hormones and the second stage of the brain being in rapid development or myelination begins in the teen years. We see teens and young adults who enter therapy to work on depression, anxiety, social anxiety, panic attacks, etc. These things impact their happiness and success.
What Underlies Teen & Young Adult Emotional Struggles May Have Roots in Trauma
While exploring the underpinnings of the depression, anxiety, etc. often it can be traced back to early life experiences. These early life experiences, or traumas, that were not able to be processed now present as depression, anxiety or other struggles.
Teens and young adults will comment about feeling empty. They may make comments around simply not feeling good enough. They may even talk about, at their core, not feeling loveable.
The one thing all these comments typically have in common is that they cannot pinpoint where these feelings come from or why. This is when I typically start to explore early life experiences.
When we are able to pinpoint experiences, that to a teen may not seem traumatic, but look through the experience through the lens of that 7 year old, we often are able to identify that these experiences underly the depression, anxiety, social anxiety, panic attacks of today.
The experience that that 7 year old experienced as traumatic has remained tucked away in the limbic system. It is not uncommon for these stuck emotions and negative felt sense of self to largely remain "dormant" then rear their ugly heads during the teen years or into young adulthood.
Trauma is What Our Brains Define as Traumatic
While the word "trauma" gets thrown around in today's world to describe relatively minor discomfort or annoyances, do not let this block you from digging deep to see if traumatic experiences at a younger age may be the driver behind your current struggles.
Trauma also does not have to be related to physical, sexual, or emotional abuse. While these certainly qualify for the definition of traumatic experiences, age does impact what the psyche will consider traumatic.
Our younger brains that engaged in magical thinking and that did not have the capacity to analyze and use logic to process these experiences can store these experiences, like divorce or other experiences, as threatening to the integrity of the self.
While we may not consciously identify these experiences as traumatic, our emotional mind holds onto these thoughts, feelings, and experiences which then start to manifest as depression, anxiety, panic attacks, social anxiety, or other challenges during our teen or young adult years.
Teen Counseling or Young Adult Therapy Can Help
A teen therapist or young adult counselor with the experience in trauma therapy or PTSD counseling can help. Trauma is something that typically will stick around causing a person to not be able to achieve to their fullest potential.
At Katy Teen & Family Counseling, we can help. We have 50+ years of combined experience in teen therapy and young adult counseling. If you have experienced trauma in your life, there is not a better time than now to resolve it.
The effects of trauma can be processed and resolved. There is no reason that a teen or young adult would need to carry the effects of trauma into adulthood. Call today and start that therapy journey to free yourself from the grips of trauma.
Katy Teen & Family Counseling: Counselors Specializing in Trauma in Katy, Tx & Houston
At Katy Teen & Family Counseling, we specialize in trauma therapy and PTSD treatment for teen therapy and young adult counseling. We utilize those approaches supported by research and shown to work. Approaches like:
Trauma Focused - Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Trauma & PTSD
If you have experienced a traumatic event in your life and are ready to put the effects of trauma behind you, all you need to do is follow these three simple steps:
Contact Katy Teen & Family Counseling
Speak with one of our caring therapists
You do not need to live with the effects of trauma any longer. Start your journey today.
Other Therapy and Counseling Services Offered at Katy Teen & Family Counseling
At our Katy, Tx location of Katy Teen & Family Counseling, we use therapy and counseling approaches that are supported by research. These approaches have been shown to work in the shortest amount of time.
Board Certified Neurofeedback Therapy
Peak performance (optimal academic brain performance)
Peak performance (optimal athletic brain performance)
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR Therapy)
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
We also provide couples counseling and marriage therapy as, sometimes, parenting a struggling teen can create relationship strain. A stronger relationship between the parents creates stronger family relationships and greater chances for teen success.
Parenting counseling for teen success
Parent counseling for support managing blended families with teens
Co-parenting counseling for divorced parents for teen success
Couples counseling for communication improvement
Couples counseling to improve trust in the relationship
Couples counseling to address infidelity and unfaithfulness
About the Author
Jason Drake is a Licensed Clinical Worker. He specializes in teen therapy, family counseling, and counseling young adults.
He has provided therapy to teens and families since 2003.
Jason is also a regular contributor to various magazines and publications lending his expertise to various mental health related topics. You can check these articles out on our "Featured Articles" service page on our website.