People who have experienced a traumatic event in their childhood such as a natural disaster, assault, or childhood abuse are survivors who often struggle in recovering during their adolescence and young adulthood. Surviving trauma is not the same as recovering, and if you talk to trauma survivors, then you may find that there is an underlined desire for healing. Healing from a traumatic event is an individual process that is different for everyone. Recovering from a childhood trauma is being able to live in the present without being overwhelmed and distressed by thoughts and feelings of the past. It’s normal for parents of young adults and teens hold onto the hope that their child will be okay and able to move forward in a loving and respectful relationship, a stable career, and on the path of starting a family. It’s possible for young people to heal from past trauma if they are ready to begin their healing process, and there are important things for parents to know.
How Trauma Affects Young Adults
What’s often misunderstood about trauma is that everyone who experiences a traumatic event will have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Truth be told, while many young people will experience stress following the aftermath of trauma, few develop the full range of symptoms that include hypervigilance, and a significant decline in functioning in everyday life. While there is truth to the old saying that “time heals all wounds”, healing from painful emotions of the traumatic event often requires working actively to address what happened in therapy and process it emotionally.
Young adult and adolescent survivors of trauma are often deeply affected long after the traumatic event, and distressing feelings and memories of the event can be replayed over in their minds. Issues that arise from unresolved trauma can be having difficulty with setting boundaries with others, which can either prevent them from developing close relationships out of fear of being hurt, or beginning a relationship with anyone who shows them interest. Survivors of early childhood trauma can often experience episodes of depression that are marked with difficulty in sleeping, and possibly blaming themselves for what happened to them.
Their Reaction is Normal
Young adults can sometimes feel as though their lives are out of control, and they can feel ashamed that they are struggling for months, or even years after a traumatic event because they may feel as though they should get over it. Messages from people around us (often well-intentioned) support that belief and feeling of shame. Some may even desire to put it behind them and get back to how things were in life before their trauma. Acknowledging what happened is something that can give young people a sense of relief that they are not crazy, but rather experiencing something real.
There are 8 things that parents of teens and young adults need to know in being supportive in the healing process of past trauma.
1. Get Informed
Becoming informed about how trauma affects people will not only give you a better understanding of what symptoms of PTSD look like, but also a greater amount of compassion and connection. Having information about what types of treatment are available can also strengthen your role as their support system.
2. Acknowledge What They Share
When the time comes for your loved one to share their story with you about what happened, the most important thing you can do is to acknowledge and validate how they feel about the experience. What this means is to listen attentively without judging how they feel about it, or giving advice with how they should feel. Sometimes you don’t need to say much of anything, but rather assure them that it’s okay to feel however they are feeling in that moment.
3. Learn the Virtue of Patience
Patience for a loved one comes from understanding and compassion. People with traumatic experiences can often have other issues they struggle with such as substance abuse and problems having stable relationships. So many parents become burned out by how their teen or adult children act out. Self-destructive behavior can result in parents unintentionally becoming enablers or shutting out their loved ones out of their lives. Being patient and firm with boundaries is something that can help someone with trauma and other co-occurring issues to seek professional help.
4. Prepare for Crisis
People who struggle with past trauma will most often also struggle with depression. If your teen or adult child talks about having thoughts about killing themselves, then be ready to take immediate action to get them help. Getting connected with a mental health professional early can help to reduce the chances of suicidal ideation.
5. Expect and Accept Change
Accepting that with working through trauma issues, there are likely to be changes in the relationship that you have with your loved one. Establishing boundaries in family relationships and talking about how they feel and think about their lives can change how they see themselves, others, and the choices they make.
6. Allow Your Loved One to Work through the Process
It can be very frustrating for a parent wishing for their loved one to be okay and free from the distress of painful memories and emotions. If your teen or adult child is actively involved in treatment for their trauma, then trust in them being a survivor who is taking control of their lives and their ability to heal, and respect that it will take time to heal. There is no time-table for how long it can take for someone to work through past trauma, and they will get there when they are ready.
7. Don’t Push Your Loved One Before They Are Ready
Pushing your loved one to do something or feel something before they are ready can backfire and create distance. Parents of teens and young adults can sometimes project their own feelings onto their loved one. Make sure that while you are being supportive of their healing process, that you are tending to your own emotions and taking ownership of it. If your loved one was physically or sexually abused, it’s normal to feel anger, but keep that away from them having to deal with it.
8. Encourage Your Loved One to Work with a Therapist
Finding a mental health professional that specializes in trauma, and who your loved one feels comfortable working with can be a big step in addressing past trauma. There are many evidenced based approaches that therapists use in assisting clients in working through trauma. One approach is Trauma Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT), that focuses on the wide range of emotional and behavioral problems associated with single, multiple and complex trauma experiences. Another effective approach in particular is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), which uses a person’s own rapid, rhythmic eye movements to reduce the intensity of emotionally charged memories of the traumatic experience.