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Helping Your Teen Cope with Trauma

How to Help Your Teen Cope with Trauma

Each teen grieves and handles trauma in their own way. After a traumatic event, some teens may need extra support. They may have difficulty coping. Sometimes listening without judgement can help your teen heal. Be open to compromise. Try to see your teen’s point of view when they share their worries.

A Teen’s Response to Trauma

Teens that have gone through a traumatic event may feel self-conscious about their own emotional response to the trauma. These feelings can make your teen feel helpless and vulnerable at times. Most teens care deeply about the opinions and perceptions their friends and classmates have. Because of this, worries over being labeled “different” or “abnormal” by their peers can cause some teens to withdraw from friends, family, and community. Wondering about what happened before, during or after the event and what they could have done differently is normal. It is important to remind your teen that this was not their fault.

In addition, it is common for a teen who has a traumatic event to:

  • Have feelings of shame and guilt about the event
  • Express fantasies about revenge and retribution
  • Have a shift in the way they see or think about the world
  • Engage in self-destructive or accident-prone behaviors

Your Response Can Help

One of the best ways you can support a teen who has experienced trauma is to encourage open conversation. You may want to talk about the event and their emotions about the event. Listening to and discussing their feelings, concerns, and fears this has placed on their personal relationships can provide a healthy outlet for them. Help your teen understand that the stress experienced may cause them to be angry at times or act out in ways they typically wouldn’t. Share ways you cope with stress. Talk about what is in their control to help your teen feel less helpless. Staying calm and reminding your teen that you are here to support and keep them safe will help them heal.

Supporting a teen after a traumatic event may be hard at times. Remember to give yourself a break when needed. Take care of yourself so you can take care of your child. Find activities you enjoy together. Plan future activities to help you and your teen recover.

If your teen’s trauma symptoms do not get better over time or get in the way of their daily life or typical activities, go with your teen to a mental health professional. If you have concerns for your teen’s immediate safety, go to the Emergency Department.

Remember, healing takes time

Information to help you provide support and comfort to your child

Things your child may want you to know, but can't express:

  • I may feel sad, scared, empty, or numb. I may be embarrassed to show my true feelings. I may say too much on social media.
  • I might have behavior problems that are new or worse than before the trauma. These may include angry outbursts, irritability, rule breaking, revenge seeking. I may be doing serious, unsafe, or harmful behaviors. These may be things like self-injury, risky sexual behavior, drug or alcohol use.
  • I have trouble concentrating and paying attention. I have a change in sleep patterns, such as staying up later or sleeping in late.
  • I may have physical reactions like jumpiness, stomach aches, headaches, a pounding heart, or body aches. These may be worse after being around people, places, sounds, situations or other things that remind me of the trauma.
  • I may think that life is meaningless, feel guilty about what happened or withdraw from family and friends. I may retreat to social media or gaming.
  • Discuss solutions for feeling sad / angry. Mention that, while social media can be helpful, I may feel better seeing friends in person. Help me plan activities I enjoy so I can be hopeful about the future. Check with other adults I may confide in to discuss ways to support me. If I seem very sad or guilty, seek professional help.
  • Sometimes I wonder if something bad will happen to me or to other important people in my life. I may express this by appearing anxious or worried or seeming not to care about the future (not studying, skipping school), or risk-taking behavior.
  • Help me develop a realistic picture of the dangers in life. Talk about ways for me to take control of my safety and future (such as driving carefully, eating well and exercising, asking others for help). Create a safety plan with me so I feel more in control.
  • I may talk about feeling like what happened was my fault.
  • Sometimes I might not want to talk about what happened. I may try to change or reject the topic (“leave me alone”). I may shrug it off. I may hide my discomfort and act as if nothing bothers me or as if I’m is doing fine.

You help your child when:

  • Invite your child to talk about their feelings once they are ready. Discuss sharing things on social media. Offer to find your child a counselor if it seems easier for them to talk to someone outside of the family.
  • Have patience. Try to remain calm while setting appropriate limits on behaviors. Encourage your child to get back to routines and activities with friends. For serious, risky, or harmful behaviors, get professional help.
  • Realize that your child may be having scary thoughts about the trauma and not tell you. Talk with them about ways to cope with these. These things might be getting back to enjoyable activities or listening to calming music. Taking a technology break at night will help your child to sleep better.
  • Recognize that your child may minimize these physical reactions or exaggerate a minor ailment or injury. Encourage them to use physical activities to release tension or try relaxing things. These include like deep breathing or gentle stretching.
  • Give honest, accurate, and age-appropriate information. Teens get information from all kinds of media, so let your child know you will always tell them the truth. If I feel responsible, reassure them to not worry. Remind them that they did the best they could at the time.
  • Realize that your child may think that talking about the trauma will upset you. Even if you feel rejected, do stay involved with your child. Know where they am and what they are doing. Your child needs your presence more than ever.

Last Updated 02/2022

Reviewed By Sarah Zawaly, Clinical Program Manager

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The Mayerson Center for Safe and Healthy Children at Cincinnati Children’s is a premier program that has helped set the national standard for enhancing and strengthening evaluations of child abuse and trauma.