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Secondary Trauma and Teens

Secondary Trauma and Teens

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), describes trauma as “an event, or series of events, that causes moderate to severe stress reactions…[that are] characterized by a sense of horror, helplessness, serious injury, or the threat of serious injury or death.” Trauma is subjective, as every teen is different, and an experience that one teenager may perceive to be traumatic, another teen may not. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), and is a mental disorder that could develop after a teen experiences trauma. It is defined by the Mayo Clinic as “a mental health condition that’s triggered by a terrifying event—either experiencing it or witnessing it.” Secondary PTSD, also known as vicarious trauma, secondhand trauma, secondary trauma, and PTSD by proxy, is the emotional distress that results when a teenager hears about the first-hand trauma experience of another person (e.g., family member, close friend, neighbor, stranger on the news, etc.). The way an adolescent’s brain develops makes them highly emotional beings. Teenagers experience deep and powerful emotions, especially in connection to indirect exposure to trauma. 

Who Is At Risk?

Some young people are more susceptible to secondary trauma than others. Common risk factors that increase one’s propensity for developing secondary PTSD include, but are not limited to the following, provided by the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN):

  • Mental health complications prior to hearing about the trauma
  • Greater geographical proximity to the event
  • Gender: females are at increased risk
  • Lacking social support networks
  • Acquaintance with those involved in the trauma
  • Emotional dysregulation 

It is important to note that not all teens with one or more of the above risk factors will inevitably go on to develop secondary trauma. 

Signs and Symptoms

The signs and symptoms associated with secondary trauma typically mimic those that present with post-traumatic stress disorder. The Boston Children’s Hospital provide the following examples of common signs and symptoms that a young person struggling with secondary trauma may exhibit:

  • Agitation
  • Depression 
  • Fear
  • Sleeplessness
  • Anger
  • Hopelessness
  • Chronic exhaustion
  • Physical ailments
  • Reckless behaviors
  • Regressions
  • Irritability
  • Isolation
  • Hyper vigilance
  • Irregular sleep
  • Constant feelings of fear and worry
  • Experiencing crying spells
  • Tense muscles
  • Social anxiety
  • Difficulty with physical contact
  • Anxiety
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Low self-esteem

Much like with PTSD, often the symptoms of secondary trauma interfere with a teen’s ability to function in his or her daily life. It may be advantageous for a teen struggling with secondary PTSD to obtain guidance from a qualified mental health professional.

For Information and Support

Every family in need of mental health treatment must select a program that will best suit the needs of their family. When one member of a family struggles, it impacts everyone in the family unit. To maximize the benefits of treatment we work closely with the entire family to ensure that everyone is receiving the support they need through these difficult times.

Seeking help is never easy, but you are not alone! If you or someone you know needs mental health treatment, we strongly encourage you to reach out for help as quickly as possible. It is not uncommon for many mental health difficulties to impact a person’s life, long term. Pursuing support at the beginning of one’s journey can put the individual in the best position to learn how to manage themselves in a healthy way so they can go on to live happy and fulfilling lives.


We are available to answer any questions you may have regarding mental health treatment and our residential program, anytime. Contact us today using the form to the right.

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