It was a normal school day.
The sun was shining, and groups of fresh-faced high schoolers were streaming into Santa Fe High School in Texas, counting down another day of school before the start of summer.
Some were looking forward to seeing friends and classmates, while others were expecting another boring day of classes.
But what none of the nearly 1,500 students expected was for their 17-year-old classmate, Dmitri Pagourtzis, to walk in with a pump-action shotgun and kill two teachers and eight students — one of them an exchange student from Pakistan.
An additional 13 people were injured in the attack and the incident received national press.
Teens are having to address the cold, hard facts of life earlier than ever, and that stress is showing in the rise of teen depression and anxiety.
Now, thanks to an increase in school-related violence, there is also a rise in cases of adolescent PTSD — post-traumatic stress disorder.
Some experts claim this is due to a “kindling effect” where thoughts and behaviors — like those exhibited during shock and trauma — are contagious and tend to spread among a population.
Either way, school shooting trauma is leading to PTSD in many of today’s teens — whether or not they attended the school where the incident took place.
What is PTSD in Teens?
PTSD is the name given to persistent terror-inducing memories or thoughts relating to a disturbing event witnessed or experienced by an individual.
It is usually debilitating and can become chronic, persisting over months and years.
If it occurs close to the triggering event, it is more likely to improve after three months. However, PTSD can have delayed onset, with symptoms appearing more than six months after the event.
This is why school shooting PTSD can be insidious, with symptoms not being easily related back to the inciting incident.
The triggering event for PTSD in teens can be something:
- Witnessed by the teen
- Occurring in a teen’s own life
- Occurring in the life of someone known to the teen (family, friend, acquaintance)
PTSD Causes in Teens
According to statistics from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), an estimated five percent of teens aged 13-18 suffered PTSD, with 1.5 percent experiencing severe impairment.
Approximately 8% of adolescent PTSD sufferers were girls and 2.3% were boys, with PTSD in all teens increasing over time.
Common Causes for PTSD in Teens and Children
Children and teens have different triggers and reactions to PTSD than adults. In the following list are examples of events that can cause a PTSD reaction in adolescents.
- Animal bites/attacks
- Natural disasters
- Invasive medical procedures
- Serious accidents (car/train wrecks, plane crashes)
- National tragedies (bombings, wars, violent protests)
- Emotional abuse
- Physical Abuse
- Sexual assault/molestation
- Physical assault (mugging, kidnapping, rape, torture)
- The list is by no means comprehensive, but it will give an idea of the types of things that impact an adolescent’s developing psyche.
PTSD Symptoms in Teens – What to Look For
Every child has a unique emotional makeup, so no two children will experience PTSD in the same way.
However, one commonality among teen PTSD sufferers is an extreme emotional or physical distress when exposed to situations that remind them of the triggering event.
They may experience any or all of the following symptoms over the days, weeks, or months following the incident.
- Loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities
- Lack of affection
- Easily startled/jittery
- Difficulty sleeping
- Sleep disturbances
- Irritability or violence
- Flashback memories
- Loss of touch with reality
- Difficulty concentrating
- Trouble with school/schoolwork
- Worry about death/dying
- Regressive behaviors like thumb-sucking or bedwetting
Coping with Teenage PTSD
If your child is experiencing difficulties due to a traumatic incident, there are things you can do to improve the situation.
1. Reduce Exposure to the Media
Media exposure is troublesome to teens experiencing PTSD due to an incident like a school shooting. The scenario is on constant graphic playback and is often embellished by erstwhile reporters. If you do encounter reports on television or online, address them alongside your child to clear up any misinformation and reassure them.
2. Encourage Activity
Your teen may feel like isolating themselves in the midst of trauma, but physical activity helps boost endorphins and other feel-good hormones that can help stabilize mood.
It will also encourage restful sleep.
Plan a family day of biking, swimming, or basketball, or just take a walk around the block and chat. Throw a ball around or put on some tunes and dance.
3. Engage with Your Teen
Your child needs you.
Spend time with your teen doing something you enjoy together, even if it’s just watching a movie or eating lunch.
Give them room to talk about their feelings, but don’t pressure them about it.
4. Provide a Safe Space
Routines provide stability for children.
If you had routines prior to the event, keep them in place. If your household was disorganized, now’s the time to add some stabilizing structure.
You can even involve your child in the creation of fun routines, like movie or game nights.
Talk about and make future plans for your family to counteract the feeling of unpredictability your child might be experiencing.
Manage your own stress so you can present a calm and focused energy to your child.
This will help them feel secure. Keeping promises you make to them is another way to bolster their feeling of safety and trust.
PTSD in Teens — When Your Teen Needs Extra Help
If you know your teen has been exposed to an event that may cause PTSD or is exhibiting signs and symptoms of the disorder for more than six weeks, please contact the mental health experts at Houston Behavioral Healthcare Hospital.
Our teen program is designed to address immediate concerns about PTSD in a safe and therapeutic environment, with specific therapies aimed at the special needs of adolescents.
You and your teen don’t have to suffer any more.
Our program for adolescents will help reduce your child’s symptoms and improve their overall functioning, providing them — and you — with peace of mind.