It is easy for the word “trauma” to get cheapened. Much discussion around mental health has been cheapened, in fact, though not out of malice. Twenty years ago, talking about how teenagers have been traumatized by the world would get you laughed off of MTV.
But these days, the discussion has turned from whether or not teenagers have been traumatized to how exactly they have been traumatized. By and large, this is a positive evolution. It has the upside of giving teenagers a vocabulary for talking about their negative feelings. The downside, of course, is that their mastery of the vocabulary is imperfect.
You do not need to be a psychologist to identify and respond to trauma, however, no more than you need to be a plumber to identify and respond to a leaking sink. So, here are 10 things to know about trauma, how it presents itself, and where it comes from in teenagers.
A Person Might Not Know They are Traumatized
When you think of trauma, you might think of people having intense and dramatic reactions to things that remind them of that trauma. But trauma is now always so obvious.
Especially in a teenager, who is going to be less self-aware than an adult on every level, a person might harbor a small trauma that influences their decision making in a big way.
Trauma can Come from Friends Unintentionally
When a teenager is forming friendships, they are often battling a serious tension in their mind. On the one hand, they have their desire to be accepted. On the other, they have all sorts of pressures to reject people. That pressure to reject people causes them to fear rejection.
A friend might reject a small part of a teenager and inadvertently signal them to not share that part of themselves. As innocent as the rejection may have been, this is still a minor trauma.
Friends can Also Intentionally Traumatize
Due to their desire for acceptance, many teenagers will stick with a friend group even after being hurt. For someone with little social experience, particularly someone with little positive social experience, pain, shame, and rejection might seem like normal parts of a friendship.
The result is someone who expects their friends to traumatize them.
Family is a Frequent Source of Unintentional Trauma
Expanded out broadly enough, the definition of trauma can include the trauma of being born. Freud believed that there was trauma involved in discovering that one’s parents were people, and that they had no strict obligation to raising their children with any love or affection.
Simply put, there are lots of ways for a mild trauma to find its way into someone’s family life.
Parental Conflicts are the Most Common Source of Trauma
For teenagers, conflicts between their parents are more common than just about every other source of trauma combined. These traumas can be pretty major too. Everything from parents fighting to parents divorcing, or parents looking weak (or not being vulnerable) in front of them.
Trauma Responses are Easy to Overlook
Imagine that your teenage child was yelled at by an abusive teacher when they were young. As a result, they learn to avoid situations where they might get yelled at. This is a reasonable motive, but it can lead them to avoid people entirely, or shut down under stress.
Trauma might produce a reasonable response, but its pathological point of origin is worrying.
Trauma is a Volatile Topic
If you look at any discussion about trauma online, you will see people arguing. There are a million things they might be arguing about, as trauma is a contentious subject.
Some people want to dictate how others interpret mental health, while others want to expand the definitions of mental health to be so wide as to be meaningless. This makes it important to draw boundaries within a discussion about mental health to keep from being misheard.
Trauma is not an Excuse
We mentioned how trauma can motivate a person’s decision-making. But while that is true, a person is still responsible for what decisions they make. Just as hunger is not a valid justification for cannibalism, trauma is not a valid excuse for hurting other people in any way.
Trauma is Physical
There is a common misconception that trauma is exclusively a cognitive process. This line of thinking asserts that trauma is a set of expectations or a frame of mind. If you think this way, then you might be surprised to see people suffer from trauma for so long.
But this is not an accurate way of thinking. Trauma causes an overproduction of a neurotransmitter called noradrenaline, which handles the panic response. This transmitter can be sent to various parts of the body to create the panic reaction that people know so well.
Trauma is Treatable
On the other side of the spectrum from “trauma is a frame of mind” perspective is the “trauma is a permanent fixture of your life” perspective. This way of imagining trauma is equally wrong.
Trauma can be treated. It is not always fast, and it is not always done the same way. Everyone is different, meaning everyone will respond to certain treatments differently. But there are very few cases of trauma being chronic throughout one’s life with treatment.
Granted, not all trauma is created equal. It can seem, in the moment, that trauma is permanent, and while experts agree that all traumas can be theoretically fixed, some trauma can be incredibly persistent. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t treatable.
The greatest thing to treat trauma is time. Cells divide and die, the skin gets replaced, bone regrows, and even brain matter and brain cells go through cycles of life and death. And eventually, through all of that, the part of your teenager that was traumatized will heal too.
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