Childhood is one of the most impactful stages in one’s life. Your experiences during childhood can shape the way you see and view the world. While many people view childhood as a light-hearted and happy time, many children also experience adverse childhood experiences, otherwise known as childhood trauma. These experiences are often unavoidable, such as the tragic death of a loved one, but can have significant impacts on your child’s wellbeing and development. If your child has been the victim or witness of a traumatic event it is important to support them through their healing process and provide them with as much help as possible. If trauma is left untreated in children, it can lead to a variety of negative effects of behavior, wellbeing, and mental health.
Behavioral Impact of Trauma
Trauma is the emotional response to being the victim or witness of an emotionally disturbing event. Serious childhood trauma is generally defined by the 10 ACE’s which are separated into 3 categories, including abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction. Childhood trauma can have significant impacts on mental health and wellbeing, both in the long-term and as an immediate result. The immediate impacts of trauma include:
- Physical arousal
- Blunted affect
In most cases, these responses are normal for trauma survivors and don’t present much immediate harm. However, if these symptoms become severe or persist over a long period of time, it may be an indicator of post-traumatic stress disorder or other trauma-related health concerns.
Experiencing a traumatic event can be quite confusing and difficult for children to process. Each individual child reacts to trauma in different ways, some may be only affected for a short period of time, while others may experience more of the after-effects of trauma, which can be referred to as traumatic stress. In some cases, particularly if childhood trauma is not treated, traumatic stress may occur. This tends to create more long-term effects and can lead to behavioral issues. Some of the behavioral issues that may present themselves in teens as a result of childhood trauma include:
- Avoidant behavior patterns
- Nightmares or flashbacks
- Sleep disorders
- Difficulty with concentration and short-term memory
- Relationship issues
- Increased need for independence
- Loss of interest in school, social life, or other activities
- Pessimistic outlook
Although these responses are common, they do indicate that your child is struggling to cope with their situation. It is important that your child receives the tools and support they need in order to learn how to cope and heal from their trauma, otherwise, you may risk your child developing unhealthy coping mechanisms or the inability to cope as a whole.
Symptoms of Trauma
If you are unsure as to rather or not your child has experienced a traumatic event in life, or if your child is being affected by traumatic stress, the following are key symptoms to look out for:
- Fear and Worry (This is only really a concern when it becomes constant, or apparent in everyday situations that wouldn’t normally invoke fear.)
- Avoidance (Actively avoiding people, places, or situations associated with the traumatic event, or self-isolating from most activities altogether.)
- Anxiety (Anxiety is a common reaction for people who experience trauma. However, anxiety may persist and develop into an anxiety disorder, particularly for children who may not have the coping mechanisms needed to handle their trauma. Constant anxiety for victims of trauma is often driven by the fear of the same or similar distressing event occurring again.)
- Angry Outbursts or Rage (Aggressive or angry behavior may result due to anger or unprocessed emotions from their trauma.)
- Overwhelming Guilt (Traumatized teens often blame themselves for the situation, this may be as a result of gaslighting or embarrassment about their trauma history.)
- Depression (Along with grief, it is common for teens to experience symptoms of depression especially after facing a traumatic loss. It is important to support your child if they are experiencing depression in order to reduce the risk of developing major depressive disorder.)
- Disruption in Sleep Patterns (Traumatic events may cause disrupted sleep patterns including insomnia, hypersomnia, and nightmares.)
- Night Terrors (Night terrors, are a more severe form of nightmares and can result due to trauma during childhood. Often people with night terror wake up drenched in sweat or are cold and shaky.)
Long-term Effects of Trauma
Traumatic experiences, particularly during childhood, have been linked to a number of long-term health consequences including increased risk for medical conditions throughout the individual’s life. This includes chronic illnesses such as heart disease, cancer, and shows links to premature deaths. The link between trauma and physical illness may be in-part explained by the correlation found between childhood trauma exposure and high-risk behaviors. High-risk behaviors refer to actions that increase the risk for disease or injury. The most common high-risk behaviors include substance use, engaging in unprotected sex, self-harm, and violence. These behaviors may put your child at a higher risk for diseases such as sexually transmitted infections, as well as overdose or other substance-related health issues, legal troubles, and suicide. In addition, trauma can have long-term impacts on cognitive functioning, behavior or ability to control emotions, chronic inflammation leading to health issues, and re-experiencing or having frequent flashbacks to the individual’s trauma.
Trauma and Addiction
One of the most profound correlations seen between trauma and mental health is their link to substance abuse disorders. Substance abuse typically refers to drugs and alcohol used in excess to the point where the brain develops a dependence on the drug for either functioning or some form of relief. Oftentimes, victims of trauma may use substances as a coping mechanism or a way to relieve the difficult emotions they have surrounding their experiences. This could explain the comorbidity found between post-traumatic stress disorder and substance misuse.
The most commonly abused substances in highly-traumatized individuals include marijuana (44.8%), followed by alcohol (39%), cocaine (34.1%), and opiates (6.2%). Marijuana and alcohol are the two most commonly abused drugs within the general population, as well as they are common drugs that overlap with other substance usage which may explain their significantly high percentages in this population. However, cocaine use, in particular, was found to be heavily correlated with the levels of childhood physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, as well as current symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
The correlation found between substance abuse disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, and childhood trauma exposure indicates a prevention measure. Working on treating, preventing, and educating the public on these 3 public health concerns and how they may coexist could help both patients in recovery for substance abuse as well as adolescents and young adults at risk for substance abuse disorders.
Wilderness Therapy for Struggling Teens
If your teen is struggling with behavioral or mental health as a result of trauma, and conventional therapy treatments haven’t proven successful, it may be time to take a more integrative approach. Wilderness therapy combines traditional and holistic therapeutic techniques and uses them to guide teens on their journey to self-discovery. Wilderness therapy programs work by combining therapy and adventurous challenges in the healing environment of earth’s natural wilderness. These programs typically involve residential treatment, and the length of stay can be a few days, weeks, or even months, depending on the program and clients choice. At wilderness therapy camps, adolescents will be placed in a controlled wilderness setting with a group of students and certified staff where they will participate in daily physical activity challenges as well as educational and therapeutic sessions or activities. This approach has been proven successful in helping teens and young adults overcome substance abuse and mental health disorders. Wilderness therapy uses holistic approaches which plays a major role in its success, as it incorporates multiple aspects of individuals’ wellbeing, including physical, mental, intellectual, social, and even environmental wellbeing. This aims to help teens understand health on a deeper level, and learn how to effectively take charge and care for themselves. At the end of wilderness therapy programs, students gain a deeper knowledge about themselves and their worldview, as well as healthy coping mechanisms used to overcome obstacles and challenges in life. The goal of wilderness therapy is to provide struggling teens with the skills and tools they need in order to live happy, healthy, and successful lives into adulthood.
BlueFire is Here to Help
BlueFire Wilderness Therapy is a program for teens and young adults struggling with emotional, social, and behavioral challenges. We work with preteens (ages 11-14) teens (ages 15-17) and young adults (ages 18-28) to help struggling youth take charge of their own lives and begin their recovery journey. BlueFire can help your family today!
For more information about blueFire wilderness therapy, please call (208) 494-9932.