What You Need to Know About Teenage Trauma and Substance Use
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While the teenage years can be tough for all, trauma can add more stress and problems. Teens can experience trauma for many different reasons, sometimes leading them to react in unhealthy ways, such as turning to a substance for comfort. Let’s look closer at how teenage trauma and substance abuse are linked and how you can detect signs of trauma in your teen and get them the help they need.

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Types of Trauma

Before we examine the causes and signs of trauma in your teen, it’s important to know that there are three main different types of trauma[1]:

  • Acute trauma: Occurs from one incident (accident, witnessing an assault)
  • Chronic trauma: Result of repeated, prolonged exposure to the same traumatic event (bullying, physical abuse)
  • Complex trauma: Occurs when there are various traumatic events over time that are often invasive or personal (abuse and neglect)

PTSD in Teens

Besides the basic types of traumas, some teens may also experience posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This occurs when someone has been through or witnessed a traumatic event, and the symptoms linger long after the trauma is over.[2] Someone with PTSD can have flashbacks that make it seem as though the trauma is still happening. They may also have trouble sleeping and be overly anxious or sensitive.

Not every traumatized teen will develop PTSD. Traumatic events that can lead to PTSD include:

  • Physical or sexual assault
  • Violence
  • Car accidents
  • Loss of a loved one
  • Being the target of hate or threats

Various professional treatment options can help teens who may be suffering from PTSD.

Causes of Teenage Trauma

Studies show that teens are no strangers to trauma. Research from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration shows that more than two-thirds of children reported at least one traumatic event by age 16.[3]

As with adults, there are various causes of trauma in teens. These can include:

  • Physical, sexual, or psychological abuse
  • Violence
  • Witnessing or experiencing domestic violence
  • National disasters
  • Sexual Exploitation
  • Sudden loss of a loved one
  • Neglect
  • Serious accidents or life-threatening illnesses

When teens experience trauma, they can feel highly stressed, scared, and helpless, which can lead to dangerous behaviors.

Signs of Trauma in Your Teen

If your teen has experienced trauma, they will likely have physical and emotional responses that can make them feel overwhelmed. These are some of the signs of trauma that your teen may show:

  • Agitation and anger
  • Fatigue
  • Feeling hopeless and depressed
  • Withdrawing from family and friends
  • Mood swings
  • Declining academic performance
  • Denial
  • Insomnia or nightmares
  • Wanting to be alone
  • Avoiding people or places associated with the traumatic event.

Teens who have experienced trauma may also have feelings of shame or guilt. They may blame themselves for what happened when it is not their fault at all. You may also notice that your teen is extremely anxious in everyday situations.

The Link Between Teenage Trauma & Substance Use

Trauma can impact teens in many ways, including turning to substances for comfort. Statistics show that teens who experienced physical or sexual abuse were three times more likely to use substances than those who did not experience that type of trauma.[4] Evidence also shows that more than 70% of adolescents receiving treatment for substance abuse had a history of trauma.[4]

What Causes Traumatized Teens to Turn to Substances?

Many teens use drugs and alcohol as a way to mask the pain, shame, and other emotions they may be feeling. These substances may alleviate their stress and make them forget about what happened for a short time. By taking these substances, they avoid their emotions. But those emotions are still there long after the effects of drugs and alcohol wear off. This can lead to an addiction as teens continually use these substances to maintain the effects.

Besides turning to drugs and alcohol, the impact of teen trauma can have other damaging effects, such as[3]:

  • Health problems like diabetes and heart disease
  • Poor academic performance and learning problems
  • Mental health issues
  • Criminal activity

When you consider all of the effects of teenage trauma, it is more important than ever to get teens the help they need to address their trauma and any substance abuse that may occur as a result.

Getting Help for Your Teen at Ember Recovery

Ember Recovery is committed to helping teens who are dealing with teenage trauma and substance abuse. We exclusively treat adolescents and focus on the specific needs of this age group. Each treatment program is geared toward the individual to achieve success. Besides programs to treat addiction, we also offer after-care programs to help teens deal with life once their inpatient treatment is over. To learn more about our treatment programs, call us or reach out to us online.



[1] https://www.psycom.net/trauma

[2] https://kidshealth.org/en/teens/ptsd.html

[3] https://www.samhsa.gov/child-trauma/understanding-child-trauma

[4] https://www.nctsn.org/sites/default/files/resources/making_the_connection_trauma_substance_abuse.pdf