Trauma & the Teenage Brain

As many of you know, Excelsior’s Triumphant Faces Gala is coming up on February 20, 2015. A portion of proceeds from this fundraiser will support Excelsior girls who have been victims of Human Trafficking and Trauma. Accordingly, over the next few weeks we will dedicate our blog to informational articles about Human Trafficking and Trauma as well as specific therapies that help girls recover from these heartbreaking experiences.

To start, we have an article about how trauma affects the teenage brain specifically, and why therapy is beneficial and often times essential for teenagers to overcome traumatic events.


Trauma & the Teenage Brain
By: Amy Williams
Guest Blogger

Trauma is one of the most common causes of stunted development in teens–in fact, an estimated one in four children will experience some kind of traumatic event by the time they turn eighteen years old, and these experiences have severe long-term consequences for their brains.Teenage girl trauma

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What Is Trauma?

It’s not uncommon for a teen to claim they’ve been ‘traumatized’ by a parent yelling at them, the (temporary) loss of their phone, or by seeing something surprising on television… but in most cases, those teens are using the expression hyperbolically.

Trauma is best understood as a high-intensity stress event, sometimes taking place over a prolonged period of time. Many forms of trauma include a physical injury of some kind (breaking or losing a limb, sexual assault, being beaten by a parental figure, etc.), but none of these criteria are necessarily required, as long as the traumatic event in question causes a significant emotional impact.

Risk And Reward

Science has long accepted that the brains of teenagers are still developing, but only modern medicine has helped to pinpoint the specific effects that brain maturity has on experiencing a traumatic event. This very topic is something that researcher Adriana Galván has been looking into for the University of California, Los Angeles, and her findings have made it clear that teens experience traumatic stress in a different way than adults do.

One of the major problems that teens face during periods of high stress is that the reward function of their brain starts to work differently – desperate teens will look for any way to alleviate their feelings, and many of them will associate a different feeling – even pain – with relief. This is the start of the negative effect that trauma has on the teenage brain, but it’s not the end.

As teens continue seeking to escape the pain of trauma, they’re likely to repeat whatever behavior brought them relief. For some, this is channeled into a positive outlet–connectedness with an animal, soothing music, or forms of artistic expression can be excellent ways of releasing their feelings in a productive way. In other cases, however, traumatized teens actually teach themselves that negative behaviors are rewarded. Their brain associates a problem – self-harm, drugs, alcohol, or even just adrenaline rushes – with a reward that it wants more of, and that sends the teen into a cycle of destructive behavior that they may never escape from.

This is why specialized therapies such as equine therapy or art therapy can be particularly effective in treating trauma depending on a given teen’s personal preferences. Excelsior’s girls have experienced incredible benefits from participating in our Equine and Art Therapy programs because these activities help create positive connections in their brains. Providing them with positive outlets to express themselves drastically lowers the possibility of resorting to negative or harmful behaviors in order to alleviate pain or anguish.

How Does Therapy Help?

The main goal of therapy is teaching the brain that negative behaviors aren’t something it should be rewarding. By demonstrating a route to happiness that’s easier than going through a harmful act, it’s eventually possible for a teen to overcome the negative effects of trauma and return to a happier, more stable life.

One thing you’ll often hear is that teens should be put into therapy as soon as possible, and that’s not just a marketing ploy. Scientific studies have confirmed that early intervention is more effective in helping teens recover from trauma, especially if it takes place before a teen has started reinforcing their negative behaviors by repeating them.

Each person’s trauma is different, and some teens will recover faster than others – what’s important is that they do recover, and that they begin to associate positive activities with a sense of reward as soon as they can. Excelsior’s therapists have seen this with our girls time and again. Every girl is different and her trauma is complex. What works for one child may not work for the next one, but recovery is always possible. All it takes is one glimpse of positive thinking and reward which we can build upon to help our girls overcome their pasts and thrive.