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When Traumatized Teens Turn to Drugs and Alcohol

Generally speaking, the younger we are the less vulnerable we feel to life’s unexpected tragedies. But this type of innocence can be shattered in an instant, and when adolescents are hit with a sudden loss or trauma it can shake them to the core and alter their worldview forever. Even adults will struggle mightily when they are forced to come to terms with the most unpleasant aspects of reality, but teens often lack the background experience and emotional maturity to process events that had seemed inconceivable just a short time ago.

No matter who we are, all of us search for ways to cope with trauma, and in many instances our choices in this area will be counterproductive or self-destructive. This can have terrible long-term consequences, especially for young people who may never learn how to handle emotional turmoil if they fail to do so at in the early stages of their development. Unfortunately, trauma victims of all ages, including teens turn to drugs and alcohol to help them escape from their pain, and this is undoubtedly the worst thing an adolescent could ever do after being put through the wringer by gut-wrenching circumstances.

Teen Trauma: Young People Caught in the Crossfire

The statistics on teen trauma are shocking and alarming:

  • 40 percent of all teens have witnessed an incident of violence.
  • 17 percent of teens have been physically assaulted.
  • Eight percent of adolescents have been sexually assaulted.
  • Teen drivers are 2.7 times more likely to be involved in auto accidents than members of other age groups, and car crashes are the leading cause of death for adolescents.
  • 15 percent of all Americans will lose a parent (11 percent) or sibling (five percent) before the age of 20.
  • Half of all American children will experience a divorce sometime before they turn 18.

While the overall problem is complex and multidimensional, there is little doubt that exposure to trauma is a strong underlying factor in the lives of many adolescents struggling with addiction. Articles in peer-reviewed health journals claim that a significant number of teens exposed to trauma will self-medicate with drugs and alcohol (from 25 to 76 percent depending on the study), and more than half of adolescents diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder will eventually develop a substance abuse disorder.

When adolescents are plunged into situations they aren’t prepared for, their ability to manage their lives and overcome their difficulties will be dependent on the support they receive from the adults in their lives. Whether they are parents, teachers, older family members, school counselors or private therapists, kids rely on adults to show them the way while providing safe environments where they can feel free to share their innermost feelings. Young people don’t have a catalog of experience to fall back on when tragedy befalls them, and they can quickly become overwhelmed if they receive no guidance or advice from those they rely on to help.

What Adolescents Need to Hear When Tragedy Occurs

Here are a few suggestions for caregivers wondering how to assist kids who have been traumatized by violence, the sudden loss of a loved one, or any other type of serious personal tragedy:

Be proactive: Kids who’ve experienced shock and trauma may not exhibit visible signs of distress at first. In fact, it is highly likely they won’t, since adolescents in particular seldom feel comfortable showing their true emotions around adults. So it makes no sense to wait until it is obvious that teens need help; intervention and engagement should begin in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, in anticipation of the trouble to come.

In the beginning, just being there means everything: When first approached, kids who have been through an ordeal may not want to talk much, and that is all right. The important thing is that they know they aren’t alone and that they haven’t been forgotten. By demonstrating patience, tolerance and respect with grieving teens, caregivers will earn greater trust and make it much easier to have constructive interactions in the days and weeks to come.

Don’t encourage teens to suppress grief, sadness or despair: Positive thinking has its place. But so do melancholy and sorrow. The point is that kids must be allowed to feel what they are feeling, and they don’t need to be told that “time heals all wounds,” or that “everyone feels this way every once in a while,” or that “you shouldn’t focus on the negative feelings all the time.” Too much peppiness or false bravado can do a suffering person more harm than good, because it forces them to deny their true feelings instead of coming to terms with their sadness.

Let them know there is no right or wrong way to feel when terrible things happen: Adolescents are very self-conscious about their feelings and their behavior. They want to grow up fast, and they want to act the way they believe adults are supposed to act. So it is important they know there is no manual telling a person how to grieve, mourn, react or respond in the face of the unimaginable. Everyone is different, what each feels is unique and distinctive, and natural emotions should never be repressed or viewed as a source of shame or embarrassment.

Expert counseling can help immensely, but it must be as comprehensive as necessary: It can obviously do traumatized kids a lot of good to receive counsel, advice and support from grief counselors, psychologists and other mental health professionals who understand the depth and gravity of what their patients are feeling. They should also be encouraged to participate in peer groups where young people going through crises can share experiences and offer mutual support. But if drugs and alcohol have entered the picture, treatment for substance abuse must be made an equal part of any healing regimen. If hurting kids are counseled soon enough, it may protect them from the pitfalls of substance abuse, but if it is too late for that, treatment for addiction may be required and could literally represent the difference between life and death.

The Value of a Sincere Approach

It isn’t easy to talk to kids about painful topics or tragic events. No one really knows what to say, and the fear of saying the wrong thing and making the situation worse paralyzes many caring adults who want to help but are afraid to try.

But regardless of the challenges, the effort to make a difference must be made. Fortunately, adolescents are far more thoughtful and observant than we sometimes give them credit for, and when adults take a real interest in their lives, young people will sense the sincerity of these efforts and respond with gratitude and acceptance.

By: Nathan Falde

Posted on December 31st, 2014
Posted in Teens

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