Is Exposure Therapy an Effective Option for Treating PTSD in Teens?

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Is Exposure Therapy an Effective Option for Treating PTSD in Teens?

Is Exposure Therapy an Effective Option for Treating PTSD in Teens?

13 December 2016
, Blog

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may have risen into common consciousness as a condition affecting war veterans and others with challenging professions, but it can also affect teenagers and young adults. Understanding the roots of PTSD can help determine the best possible treatment, but some treatments show good results for young PTSD sufferers regardless of the exact cause of their condition. Find out what kind of research shows the power of exposure therapy, especially in combination with other therapies, for treating teens with PTSD.

Causes of PTSD in Teens

There are dozens of different known causes for PTSD, but there are a few types that are more prevalent among children and teenagers. Some of the most widespread causes of PTSD in teens include:

  • Physical or psychological abuse
  • Sexual assault or abuse
  • The loss of a parent, sibling, or close friend, especially if the teen witnessed the death or suicide was involved
  • Natural disasters like hurricanes and tornadoes
  • Ongoing neglect
  • Exposure to crime or serious accidents.

Regardless of the events that caused the PTSD to develop in the first place, the side effects tend to emerge similarly. Treatments are also effective across the board for all of these triggering events and more.

Challenges of Treating Adolescents

Adults with PTSD have a stronger ability to cope with difficult emotions, but a modified form of exposure therapy is still effective for children and teenagers. It's difficult to treat younger patients with PTSD because exposing them to triggering material can have a much stronger effect on their emotions and development. All forms of counseling must be modified to fit the specific psychological needs of the younger patient, especially since younger teenagers can vary greatly in emotional maturity. Some 14-year-olds may handle nearly as much exposure therapy as an adult, while another patient of the same chronological age needs a greatly reduced intensity to benefit from the treatments.

Changes in Therapy Protocols

For the best results with PTSD specifically, research points to the benefit of prolonged and gradual exposure therapy over short-term and overwhelming procedures. The best results for both short and long-term improvements in symptoms of PTSD like depression and anxiety were found with up to 15 consecutive treatments of up to 90 minutes at a time.  A slow exposure process reduces the stress generated by exposing the patient to reminders of their original trauma, but even patients that stopped treatments before 15 weeks still experienced lasting improvements. Some patients may need the even longer support of group sessions or peer mentoring to stick to their therapy goals after ending the exposure period.

Coverage of Evidence

The strongest body of evidence for treating teens with exposure therapy involves studies with teen girls with a history of sexual abuse. In direct trials, exposure therapy outperformed the usual supportive counseling sessions usually prescribed for dealing with the after effects of sexual assault. Again, sessions of up to 90 minutes and multiple weeks of therapy were used to create a long-lasting period of relief from the most troubling symptoms of PTSD in teens. There is less evidence for the direct efficacy of exposure treatment for other specific forms of PTSD, but it's worth trying for other forms of the illness.

Control of Symptoms

Learning the relaxation techniques that are central to exposure therapy, such as meditation and controlled breathing, allow patients of all ages to deal with symptoms whenever they pop up in the future. This means that going through therapy at a relatively young age can prepare a person with a history of trauma for the rest of life. They can continue to use the skills they learn from their counselor to deal with future situations before they become traumatizing as well.

If you or your teen has suffered PTSD, contact resources like Lifeline to begin the healing and recovery process.

About Me
Learning About Putting Kids In Counseling

Hello, my name is Nick. When my kids were growing up, they all suffered from different levels of bullying. The other kids would poke fun so often that my children didn't want to return to the playground at school. I decided to place them in counseling so they could learn coping skills. In the meantime, I worked with the school to end the bullying. The counseling sessions did the most good, however, as my children were able to let hurtful words roll off their backs. I hope to use this site to explore the benefits of placing kids in counseling.