What Treatment Approaches Can Support Young People to Recover from Trauma?

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Exposure to trauma is common among children and adolescents. Research from the US suggests that a majority of adolescents (61.8%) may have lived through a potentially traumatic experience, while 4.7% have had PTSD at some point in their lives.

Traumatic experiences and post-traumatic stress disorder can have a big impact on the well-being and development of young people. Adolescents affected by trauma may experience persistent anxiety, have difficulty regulating their emotions, and find it hard to build trusting relationships with others. 

In this context, it’s important that children and adolescents who have experienced trauma receive timely and effective treatment. This blog discusses some of the evidence-based treatment approaches available and how they work to support young people’s recovery.

What Is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a disorder that can develop after someone is exposed to an extremely frightening event that they experience as a threat to their life or bodily integrity. Young people may develop PTSD after abuse, violence, and other traumatic events. PTSD can also develop when a young person witnesses a frightening event happen to someone else.

Most young people take some time to recover from a traumatic event, but those with PTSD are unable to move on from the experience. They keep reliving the event in flashbacks, nightmares, and thoughts and feelings. Research suggests that around 20% of people develop PTSD after a traumatic experience.

Some young people who have experienced trauma persistently develop complex PTSD. Complex PTSD involves symptoms of PTSD alongside additional symptoms, such as mistrust of others or hopelessness and despair. Complex PTSD is common among young people who experience childhood abuse, neglect, or frequent violence.

PTSD among adolescents can affect their development academically, cognitively, emotionally, and socially. 

The Mental Health Consequences of Trauma

Young people who do not develop PTSD after traumatic events often still experience mental health consequences. Research shows that trauma exposure among adolescents is associated with anxiety, depression, and behavioural problems.

Among children who have been exposed to trauma, around ⅕ experience significant impairments in their daily lives.

Trauma-Informed Treatment For Children and Adolescents

Given the mental health consequences of unaddressed trauma among young people, it’s important that they quickly receive effective treatment. Trauma-informed treatments support young people to recover from the effects of trauma and help prevent negative consequences for their development and well-being.

There is now a range of evidence-based treatments available for young people who have been exposed to traumatic events. These include:

  • Individual CBT, CBT with parental involvement, and group CBT
  • Eye movement desensitisation and processing therapy
  • Individual integrated therapy for complex trauma
  • Group mind-body skills

Individual Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT)

Individual CBT is a type of therapy that focuses on the interactions between a young person’s thoughts and behaviours. Therapists work with the young person to identify harmful thoughts and behavioural patterns and change them into more positive ones. They learn useful skills and coping mechanisms to manage difficult emotions and feelings.

Individual CBT for young people who have experienced trauma usually involves techniques like psychoeducation, coping skills, imaginary and ‘in-vivo’ exposure, and cognitive processing. 

Imaginary and in-life exposure often make up a big part of CBT treatment. These techniques involve either explicitly recalling details, thoughts, and feelings of traumatic experiences through speech, drawing, writing, or creative mechanisms (imaginary exposure) or confronting harmless reminders of traumatic events (in-vivo exposure).

Individual CBT with Parental Involvement

Individual CBT with parental involvement usually involves a series of separate CBT sessions for parents and children using the same techniques in both. It often also involves some joint parent-child sessions.

Individual BCT with parental involvement uses similar techniques to individual CBT. Parents also receive parenting skill sessions, including how to praise young people and reward and reinforce positive behaviour change. 

Group Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy

In group CBT sessions, young people receive treatment alongside other children or adolescents, with minimal involvement from parents. Group therapy sessions usually include psychoeducation, coping skills (such as relaxation), and cognitive restructuring that aims to replace stressful thoughts with less stressful ones. They may also include exposure and problem solving or focus on social support. 

Group CBT sessions can help more young people access trauma-exposure treatment, especially in settings such as schools. It can also support young people in developing interpersonal skills that may be affected by symptoms of trauma exposure, such as anxiety and mistrust, as they progress through treatment.

Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy

EMDR therapy is based on the theory that symptoms of trauma exposure are, at least in part, caused by unprocessed traumatic memories. According to the theory, some people don’t adequately process memories of past disturbing events, resulting in continued distressing experiences. 

These unprocessed memories may hold thoughts, feelings, emotions, and physical sensations that happened at the time of the event. When something a young person encounters triggers these memories, they can reexperience these feelings and sensations as though they were living the event again.

EMDR therapy aims to change the way a traumatic memory is stored in the brain. Through our mind-body connections, physical actions can change the way we think, feel, and remember. In particular, movement seems to be connected with the processing of trauma – for example, in animals, running after a dangerous encounter appears to prevent lasting psychological consequences.

Specifically, EDMR sessions involve the use of eye movements and other forms of stimulation while a young person focuses on and remembers a traumatic experience. As this process is repeated, the memory becomes less vivid and removed from distressing emotions. As a result, young people may experience fewer symptoms of PTSD and recover from the disorder.

Individual Integrated Therapy for Complex Trauma

Complex trauma happens when young people experience repeated and persistent harm. It’s usually interpersonal, involving abuse, neglect, and/or exploitation from caregivers. Complex trauma tends to involve more symptoms than other forms of trauma, including problems in relationships, impulsiveness, and putting themselves in danger. 

Alongside CBT and other techniques, interventions for complex trauma usually focus on supporting young people to regulate and manage their emotions and build positive interpersonal relationships. Interventions may or may not involve parents as part of the treatment process, although it is usually recommended.

Group Mind-Body Skills

Research suggests that trauma is stored in somatic memory after a distressing event, affecting the body’s biological stress response and causing symptoms of PTSD. This means that somatic therapies – that focus on the body as well as the mind – may help young people to process and heal from trauma. 

Group mind-body skills interventions combine skills like mindfulness, meditation, relaxation,

guided imagery, and biofeedback. Studies have found that group mind-body interventions can effectively treat trauma in young people affected by war and may be led and supervised by trained school teachers.

The Wave Clinic: Specialist Recovery Programs for Young People

The Wave Clinic offers dedicated mental health support for young people, specialising in eating disorders, borderline personality disorder, trauma, and other mental health conditions. Our programs make a difference in the lives of children and adolescents through a journey of education, enriching experiences, clinical care, and personal growth. 

Combining educational programs with vocational qualifications and community responsibility, we help young people to discover new life paths, grow in self-confidence, and develop the skills they need to follow their dreams. At the same time, our exceptional clinical care safely and sensitively supports young people to recover from complex mental health concerns and look towards a resilient future.

If you’re interested in finding out more about our programs, get in touch today. We’re here to make a difference.

Fiona - The Wave Clinic

Fiona Yassin is the founder and clinical director at The Wave Clinic. She is a U.K. and International registered Psychotherapist and Accredited Clinical Supervisor (U.K. and UNCG).

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