All relationships mirror the relationship you have with yourself. This goes both ways. Teens learn to take care of themselves the way they’ve been taken care of and are better prepared to trust others, forgive others, and respect others if they are able to treat themselves the same way. According to the novel, the Perks of Being a Wallflower, “we accept the love we think we deserve.” While traumatic events can take a significant toll on the body’s ability to manage stress, the hardest part to overcome is the effect it has on relationship and identity issues. Helping teens rebuild a relationship with themselves after trauma is key to developing healthy relationships and coping mechanisms.
The Hidden Effects of Trauma
Addiction specialist Gabor Mate explains “trauma is not about what happened to you, but the disconnection from yourself that happened as a result of whatever the stressor was.” The defense mechanisms that teens develop to cope with childhood trauma result from teens trying to create a false self whose value depends on what other think of them as a form of self-protection. However, this method reinforces the self-sacrifice, self-doubt, and self-sabotage that many teens recovering from trauma experience rather than addressing it.
When teens are struggling with trauma, it affects multiple areas of their lives. It is not just about the memories of traumatic events; it is about the messages they’ve internalized about why those events happened and how they shape their sense of self. Teens are more likely to develop PTSD than older people based on difficulties with self-awareness, emotion regulation, decision-making, and identity formation during this transitional phase of their lives.
Traumatic stress refers to overwhelming feelings of terror, fixation on a traumatic event, and perpetual fear of retraumatization in the aftermath, but it is associated with other underlying issues:
- Loss of trust
- Deep-rooted guilt and shame
- Doubting one’s memories
- Cynical worldview
- Fear of perceived abandonment
- Taking too much responsibility for events that have occurred
- Internalizing that they deserved the experience
- Difficulty separating current self from traumatized self
How Trauma Effects One’s Sense of Identity
For teens, adolescence is all about determining who they are, who they want to be, where they fit in and where they don’t, as they establish a sense of identity that is separate from their parents. They begin to pay more attention to how other people view them and often value other people’s opinions more than their own.
Some examples of identity issues in adolescence may include:
- Becoming attached to their online self, where they are in control of how they are portrayed by others
- Acting out to fit in through risky behaviors
- Adopting other people’s personalities either for approval or a way to feel “normal”
- Rebelling against authority figures by expressing mistrust
- Basing their sense of identity around group membership
- Trying on different personalities, either through exploring different interests or friend groups
Helping Teens Re-establish a Healthy Sense of Self
- Discuss what they think their basic needs are. Many teens with PTSD are stuck in “survival mode, ” however, they struggle to meet their basic needs. If they experience nightmares, they may be afraid of going to sleep. Or they may sleep too much to escape from reality. Anxiety may take away their appetite or they may crave unhealthy foods. Many teens struggle with suicidal ideation and don’t believe their basic needs deserve to be met. Other people may consider physical safety, boundaries, and trust should be their basic needs and feel a sense of injustice that they may have been taken away from them. Self-care is a difficult concept during early recovery.
- Encourage them to separate themselves from the events that have happened to them. Remind them that events that occurred and the way they’ve responded to them are not their fault. Teens are empowered to take back control of their lives when they recognize that past experiences may shape who they are, but do not have to shape their future. As they understand that it is not uncommon for them to feel distant from things they used to enjoy or people they used to be close with, they can begin to move forward and use those things as motivation.
- Talk about their inner child. Although they are still young, trauma can make teens grow up quickly. They may feel like they’ve lost their innocence or missed out on opportunities to be a kid. While it can be hard to recognize and validate their own needs, thinking about their needs as if they were someone else’s, particularly a younger child, helps them show more compassion towards themselves in the moment.
- Help them create personal goals. Many teens feel like their old goals are no longer relevant or no longer possible if they are struggling to cope with trauma. While it is important to validate the pain of their experiences, it is helpful to recognize how this may shape new goals in their relationship with themselves or how they want to help or educate others. Self-discovery and re-connection knows no limits, but setting smaller goals can help teens be more intentional about what values are still important to them and how they can apply them in their lives.
Solstice East Can Help
Solstice East is a residential treatment center for young women ages 14-18 who are reclaiming their sense of self after experiencing traumatic events, depression, and addictive behaviors. We help young women heal from emotional pain by reintegrating healthy habits into their lives. Students learn to build healthy relationships, cope with emotions, and effectively communicate with others. Through adventure activities and creative expression, we encourage girls to explore their passions and strengths and empower them to make healthy choices. As a relationship-based program, we emphasize rebuilding family relationships and developing close bonds with mentors, staff, and peers.
For more information about how we help girls cope with trauma, call 828-484-9946.