Young Adult and Teen Trauma

Two in three young people report experiencing at least one form or instance of trauma before age 16

What is trauma? 

Trauma is an emotional response to a disturbing or distressing event—such as an accident, physical violence, sexual assault, or natural disaster. While not everyone who experiences a stressful incident will develop trauma, those who do can be left feeling hopeless, emotionally vulnerable, and unable to cope.

Everyone reacts to trauma differently, but below is a list of common emotional and physical responses in children, teens, and young adults:

  1. Increased feelings of sadness, anger, shame, or guilt
  2. Feelings of hopelessness or numbness
  3. Increased anxiety or depression
  4. Nausea, headaches, or fatigue
  5. Withdrawing from family, friends, school, and other activities
  6. Flashbacks to the traumatic event
  7. Trouble sleeping or bad dreams
  8. Wanting to spend more time alone
  9. Jumpy and prone to being easily startled 
  10. Trouble concentrating and completing assignments at school


Causes of trauma in young adults and teens

A traumatic event can be anything that evokes a strong emotional response and impairs a person’s ability to cope.

Trauma is unique to each person, but below is a list of potentially triggering events:

  1. Psychological or physical abuse
  2. Community violence such as school shootings
  3. Intergenerational trauma (years of consistent and persistent trauma within families across generations)
  4. Neglect
  5. Sexual assault
  6. Serious accidents, like a plane or car crash
  7. Life-threatening illness
  8. Witnessing or experiencing intimate partner violence
  9. Losing a loved one, especially due to suicide
Teen girl experiencing trauma looking at her phone

Different types of trauma

There are several different categories of trauma. Some people will develop symptoms that resolve after a few weeks, while others will experience more long-term effects.

Acute trauma 

Trauma that occurs from a single stressful or dangerous event. This type of trauma typically occurs during or immediately after the distressing event. Causes of acute trauma include assault, a school shooting, or death of a loved one. 

Chronic trauma

Trauma that occurs from repeated or prolonged exposure to highly stressful events. Causes of chronic trauma include bullying, child abuse, and intimate partner violence.

Complex trauma

Trauma that occurs from exposure to repeated or multiple traumatic events. A defining feature of this type of trauma is feeling like there is no way to escape. Causes of complex trauma include childhood neglect or repeated violence or abuse—especially when coupled with the collective trauma that results from experiences like the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Teen girl by herself dealing with trauma

Trauma and PTSD

For some people, trauma leads to the development of a mental health condition called post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Signs of PTSD usually begin within three months of experiencing a traumatic incident, but they sometimes take longer to emerge. To meet the criteria for PTSD, symptoms must last longer than one month and be severe enough to interfere with school, work, hobbies, and other aspects of daily life.

The likelihood that a person will develop PTSD depends on a few factors, including: 

  1. How severe or harmful the trauma was
  2. If they've experienced past trauma or have a lot of stress in their life
  3. Any pre-existing mental health conditions such as an anxiety disorder or depressive disorder
  4. How supported they feel as they process their trauma
  5. Temperament

Trauma’s effect on mental health

Everyone processes trauma differently, and for some people this means developing coping mechanisms that have an unhealthy impact on their mental health. One example is fawning—when a person adopts people-pleasing behaviors to avoid conflict and to create a sense of safety. Other reactions that can impact a person’s mental wellbeing include:

  • Fight response: becoming aggressive 
  • Flight response: running away
  • Freeze response: inability to make a decision 

When left untreated, trauma can have severe mental health consequences. Trauma has been linked to depression, anxiety, and PTSD, as well as increased admissions to emergency rooms, substance use, and general feelings of unhappiness.

Data also shows a link between PTSD and increased suicidal ideation among teens. If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, call one of the following resources:

  1. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (988) or (1-800-273-8255)
  2. The Crisis Text Line (text HOME to 741741)
  3. The National Alliance on Mental Illness HelpLine (1-800-950-NAMI (6264))
  4. SAMHSA’s National Helpline (1-800-662-HELP (4357))
  5. Your local emergency department or crisis center

How to process & treat trauma for young adults and teens

Please know that there are effective ways to cope with trauma and emotional pain. One example is intensive outpatient therapy.

During therapy, a mental health professional will help you to feel safe and supported, while exploring healthy ways to cope with negative emotions. Plus, therapy can help prevent some of the co-occurring mental health conditions mentioned earlier, including anxiety disorders, depression, and substance abuse.

In addition to psychotherapy, there are other self-care practices you can follow to manage the stressful effects of trauma. 

Show yourself compassion.

We’re here to remind you that you are not responsible for events that are out of your control. For some people it can be difficult to shake trauma-related feelings of guilt or shame, so show yourself some compassion and patience as you build the skills to cope.

Make time for yourself.

Self-care is a valuable tool for coping with trauma and ensuring that you’re prepared to handle whatever comes your way. A balanced diet, quality sleep, and exercise are all simple ways to cultivate positive mental health and help build resilience.

Avoid social isolation.

Although it's tempting to retreat—both physically and mentally—after a traumatic experience, try connecting with a trusted friend, family member, or mentor instead. Social isolation has been linked to an increased risk of anxiety and depression in children and adolescents, and the longer isolation lasts, the harder it can be to overcome.

Young adult and teen therapy for trauma at Charlie Health

If you’re currently struggling to process a traumatic experience, consider seeking help. Charlie Health’s team of compassionate mental health professionals is here to listen to your story, understand your needs, and match you with an appropriate care plan. Learn more today

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