Substance abuse, behavioral issues, defiance—absent genetic causes, when a young person acts out, the reason may have to do with trauma.
By the time they reach age 16, roughly one-quarter of children and adolescents have experienced a traumatic event. Trauma results from physical or sexual abuse or from witnessing a horrific event.
Adolescence can be rife with problems without the added burden of trauma. Trauma manifests in various forms for different people. Some turn to drugs and alcohol; others lash out or engage in reckless, self-destructive behavior. Our programs address co-occurring conditions. Nothing in life happens in a vacuum. Treating addiction or mental health issues without treating accompanying trauma is of little help to the patient.
According to the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System, in 2009 it was reported one in four girls and eight in 10 boys are sexually abused by the age of 18. Sexual abuse is defined as sexual contact without informed consent between a minor—under age 18—and someone who is five or more years older than the minor. Law enforcement and the courts recognize children are incapable of providing informed consent.
The majority of sexual crimes involving children are committed by a relative or friend of the family. Girls are more likely to be abused by a family member whereas boys are likely to be abused by a person they trust, such as a coach, teacher, neighbor, clergy or babysitter.
Sexual abuse can have lifelong psychological repercussions. Factors influencing the severity and the duration of these repercussions include:
- Age of the victim when the abuse begins
- Severity of the acts
- Relationship of the child to the abuser
- Invasiveness of the acts
- Response and support—of lack thereof—from others
Domestic violence and children
Children raised in an environment where physical and verbal abuse occur, will likely develop emotional difficulties. According to Child Welfare Information Gateway, children raised in violent households display aggressive, antisocial behavior. They are prone to depression and anxiety. They typically score lower on standardized tests. They have limited problem solving skills, lack conflict resolution skills, are violent and are more likely to commit domestic violence as adults. Females who experience or witness violence as children are more likely to be victims of domestic violence as adults.
Parents represent safety and stability. When a child is witness to domestic abuse, his world is undone; the ensuing trauma can be debilitating. Factors which determine the severity of the trauma include:
Nature of the violence
- Age of the child when he first witnesses the violence
- Frequency of the violence
- Gender of the child
- If the child was physically or sexually abused
Post-traumatic stress disorder—PTSD
PTSD is generally associated with veterans returning from combat. But a traumatic event can trigger PTSD in civilians. A school shooting, the death of a loved one, a car accident, natural disaster or a life-threatening event can trigger PTSD in a child.
A child with PTSD may display the following:
- Preoccupation with death
- Loss of interest in usual activities
- Recurring physical symptoms—headaches, stomach aches
- Disproportionate emotional reactions
- Sleep problems
- Increased irritability or anger
- Inability to concentrate
- Emotional immaturity
The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry notes children subjected to repeated trauma often develop emotional numbing to block the pain of trauma. Psychologists call this dissociation. Children with PTSD avoid situations and places they associate with the trauma. They avoid people who they relate to the incident(s). Dissociation can cause a child with PTSD to be less responsive, depressed, withdrawn and detached from his feelings.
PTSD can last for years. The primary goal when counseling a child with PTSD is to reestablish a sense of safety. Psychotherapy, behavioral modification and cognitive therapy aid in establishing this sense of trust.
There is not one set of symptoms for behavioral disorders. The Mayo Clinic provides a list of common behavioral changes which may indicate a teen suffers from an emotional disorder:
- Feeling depressed
- Muddled thought processes
- Excessive fears or worries
- Extreme mood changes
- Withdrawal from friends and activities
- Significant fatigue
- Detachment from reality, delusions, paranoia or hallucinations
- Inability to cope with daily problems or stress
- Extreme feelings of guilt
- Alcohol or drug abuse
- Major changes in eating habits
- Sex drive changes
- Excessive anger, hostility or violence
- Suicidal thoughts
White River Academy
When you enroll a young man in White River Academy, our intake team conducts a comprehensive mental health assessment. We create a treatment program tailored to your child’s emotional needs. Depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder—your son’s treatment plan will address these and a myriad of other behavior issues. Our academy specializes treating mental health and co-occurring substance abuse problems. For more information about WRA and the programs we provide, call 866-520-0905.