Many young women in treatment are struggling with unresolved emotional reactions to traumatic events. These events might be recent and dramatic, or much older and subtler. If you suspect (or know) that your young adult is struggling with post-traumatic issues, the following information may help you help her.
What is “trauma?”
Trauma is a normal response to frightening or emotionally disruptive events. It can range from very short term emotional discomfort to acute stress disorder to post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Acute stress disorder, though uncomfortable and persistent, can resolve on its own in a matter of weeks or months. PTSD is marked by chronic, persistent, and sometimes debilitating emotional distress related to the traumatic event.
What are potentially traumatic experiences?
Of course the most obvious sources of trauma for a young woman are things like sexual or physical assault. But experts are now acknowledging that individuals differ in their sensitivity to disruptive experiences and, therefore, have expanded the definition of a traumatic event. Potentially traumatic events include:
- Natural Events: Researchers have seen ripples of traumatic reactions to hurricanes, earthquakes, floods fires in the neighborhood or home, and other natural events where the individual feels threatened.
- Family Disruption: Divorce, a parent’s job loss, even the death of a grandparent can trigger a trauma response.
- Adoption: Even at-birth adoptions can cause trauma since the child is suddenly separated from the one person it recognizes chemically as his or her parent.
- Car Accidents: Car accidents in which one’s life seemed at risk or in which there was a loss of life or serious injury can have long-lasting, post-traumatic emotional impacts.
Helping Trauma Victims
In their effort to help, parents often either minimize or pathologize their young adult’s trauma experience. Both responses, says clinical psychologist Jack Hinman, can be counterproductive. “It’s important to normalize the young woman’s emotional response to trauma–whatever that may be. Immediately pathologizing it can disrupt the normal, natural healing process,” says Hinman. “Ignoring it, similarly, can slow or stop her progress toward healing.”
Hinman recommends that parents keep the following tips in mind if they suspect their young-adult child has experienced a trauma:
- Normalize their experience by listening, encouraging–but not forcing–communication about it, and providing a safe place to talk about feelings.
- Avoid pathologizing her emotional reactions. Prematurely assigning clinical labels like PTSD and providing too much intervention too soon can exacerbate the problem by sending the message her responses are abnormal and that she is helpless to cope and move through it.
- Encourage her to feel what she feels without judging herself or her reactions–trauma responses may include survivor’s guilt, difficulty sleeping, anxiety, etc. Avoidance of emotions/memories related to the trauma can create situations in which PTSD can develop.
- When your daughter has a thought related to the event, encourage her to put it on the table and discuss it. A seemingly compulsive need to talk about the same things repeatedly is a normal part of the healing process–and a normal part of being an adolescent or young adult!
- Participation in processing groups comprised of people with similar experiences can help normalize your daughter’s experience and reaction.
- Many young women who have been traumatized feel that “I should just get over it and stop talking about it over and over.” So make it okay to stay in the feelings and talk about them.
- Your daughter may have more intense reactions and a slower healing process than other family members who have experienced exactly the same events. This can make her feel uncomfortable with her responses, bottling up thoughts and feelings that she needs to process in order to heal. Remain curious and patient if you suspect this is the case.
- If your daughter’s reaction to trauma persists or seems to worsen over time, seek outside help to diagnose and treat the issue.