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The Danish Center of Psychotraumatology

13-18 years old: Crisis reactions in teenagers

Teenagers’ crisis reactions are similar to adults’. Teenagers, however, are in the middle of a difficult phase of development where they are already emotionally unstable, which makes coping with difficult feelings a central theme for this group.

Because teenagers are in the process of breaking free from their parents, it can be more difficult for parents to support their child.
Below, you can read about normal crisis reactions in teenagers. Here, you can read more on how the post-reactions are experienced by the person.

Common reactions

Mood swings
Parents of teenagers are familiar with mood swings. These may be intensified when the teenager is going through a crisis. They are very vulnerable in the first period following an incident - violent outbursts of anger, aggressive behaviour or convulsive crying, are therefore not uncommon.

Problems at school
Disturbing thoughts and images can make it difficult for the young person to concentrate in school.  Memory problems, fatigue and absent-minded behaviour, are also common reactions.

Rejection and withdrawal
While some young people become externalised, others become distant and quiet. They isolate themselves in their rooms refusing to talk to their parents about the incident. Parental care and offers of support can be perceived as clingy.

Avoidance of feelings
Many teens find it difficult to handle the strong emotions that a traumatic event trigger. The young person might try to avoid his/her feelings completely - they become ‘indifferent’ to everything and might deny the fact that the incident had an impact on them. It is not uncommon for teenagers to dull their feelings with drugs, alcohol or thoughtless actions.

Acting less independent
A traumatic event can cause demands and responsibilities to be confusing for the young people. Immature behaviour can occur, and teens are likely to send conflicting signals e.g. call on their parents' care one moment and reject it the next.

Suicidal thoughts
Be aware of symptoms of depression - sadness, demanding behaviour, loss of initiative and loss of interest in things they usually care about e.g. taking care of their horse, playing the guitar, going to parties, etc. These feelings often go hand in hand with suicidal thoughts and feelings of hopelessness.

Pessimistic philosophies
Teenagers’ fundamental ideas about other people and the world, often change after a violent event; catastrophes can occur, other people are evil, people you love can die at any moment, the world is not a safe place. Be aware if the young person makes pessimistic statements that indicate that he or she has formed such negative philosophies. Sometimes a teen’s way of thinking becomes more categorised and ‘black and white’ after a traumatic experience.

The young person may begin to express concern about things that he or she did not give much thought to before the incident. They are especially concerned about their own safety and the safety of others.

Physical symptoms and vigilance
Flashbacks to the accident can create anxiety. Young people are easily startled and react - depending on the event - to e.g. loud noises or other factors that may remind them of it. Young people who have been victims of violent or sexual abuse may also feel uncomfortable with certain movements, touch or hugs. Frequent complaints of stomach- or headaches can be signs that the teen is anxious and worried.

Sleep problems
Sleep problems are very common after a traumatic event. Thoughts and scenes from the event may begin to appear when the young person is lying in semi-darkness. Restless sleep and nightmares are also common.

NOTE: Pay attention if you have a daughter, as girls often have more post-traumatic stress symptoms than boys. Girls, who become introverted, sad, and quiet, are not as visible as boys, who become externalised and aggressive - but they have it just as hard.

Talking to a teenager

It can be difficult to get your teen to open up.

  • Make time for some quiet moments with your teen, where you are present and have plenty of time. Young people need understanding, empathy and consolation.
  • It is important that you listen and try to understand your child’s experience and put yourself in their shoes - do not express your opinions or blames no matter how much you want to. Instead, help the teen verbalise their feelings.
  • Also help the teenager to get a handle on what actually happened. Contribute with the information you have, but keep it on a factual level while avoiding any bloody details.
  • Be careful with overprotective behaviour or excessive care - it may cause the young person to pull away.
  • Be honest and tell them if you do not know what to say or do to help.
  • Remember that it is natural for young people to seek the support of their friends. Ask your child if they are talking to a friend about the incident, so you know if they have someone to share their thoughts and feelings with.

How can I help my teenager?

  • Be a role model for your child. Show them that you are not afraid to put into words what has happened and that you take the incident seriously.
  • Do not immediately try to hush down all emotional outbursts, but accept them with calmness and acceptance.
  • Slack on the requirements in the first period following the incident and be patient with immature behaviour.
  • Meet the young people's concerns about your safety by being punctual, sticking to appointments, and letting them know if you are delayed.
  • Help the young person to get a handle on practical things, remembering dates, appointments, etc.
  • Help him or her to get through the things that are important, but difficult; e.g. seeing the site of the accident, visiting the injured in the hospital or similar confrontations.
  • Take action if your teen expresses a want or need to talk to someone/a psychologist - young people in crisis situations cannot cope with taking the initiative themselves.
  • Talk to teachers about how your teenager is doing in school, and collaborate with the school to resolve any problems.

Seek help if your teenager:

  • Cuts themselves or attempts suicide
  • Starts drinking a lot and/or doing drugs
  • Is continuously sad, distant, sullen and uninterested in activities he or she used to enjoy
  • Have trouble keeping up in school and/or constantly gets into conflicts with teachers and/or peers
  • Behaves aggressively and has violent outbursts of anger
  • Commits crimes or mindless, dangerous acts
  • Is anxious and depressed over an extended period of time
  • Is serious and worried over an extended period of time
  • Has nightmares and sleep problems over an extended period of time

It is important to listen to your gut feeling if you feel that there is something wrong with you teen.

This page has been created with inspiration from:

  • British Red Cross
  • American Psychological Association
  • Better Health Channel
  • National Organization for Victim Assistance - Reactions of Children and Adolescents to Trauma


Last Updated 16.08.2023