Traumas come in all different shapes and sizes. We don’t get to decide what is or is not traumatic to someone else. There are people who give children up for adoption and consider it a blessing to be able to give their offspring a better life than they could offer. There are those who lose a parent and find that it transforms their life in such a positive way, they can’t even believe how much better life ends up once the grieving is over. And, there are those who lose a job they didn’t even like and consider it so unbearable that they sink into a deep depression. Each individual gets to decide what is or is not a trauma, and this is particularly salient when it comes to dealing with teenagers.
Teens appear to have one crisis after another and it often seems like they hardly have time to take a breath before the next one comes along. Each new difficulty is presented as if it holds “life-and-death” potential. Parents, educators, and therapists can become desensitized to the chaos that is a teenager’s life and become less attuned to the gravity of situations, as perceived by the teen. This can leave teens with the feeling that no one understands them, no one cares, and that they are all alone with the trauma.
It can be helpful for adults to familiarize themselves with the types of things that teens can consider traumas that adults may not recognize as such.
Abandonment – If a father walks out on a family of small children, that is the type of abandonment most people recognize as traumatic. However, for a teen, any sort of abandonment, even temporary, or seemingly minor, can be experienced by them as a trauma. Not being invited out for ice cream after the basketball game by the rest of the cheer squad is a form of abandonment. Having 3 friends walk into the next store in the mall while one girl tries to make a purchase decision between two pairs of jeans can be a devastating abandonment.
Rejection – Again, to be told that you are completely unsuited for a job for which you applied is a pretty humiliating rejection most adults can identify as a trauma, but again, for teens, even the slightest rejection can be crushing. Having a few peers fail to make any positive comment on a new haircut can be seen as rejection. Not being chosen as a partner to the other student you were sure was going to select you for an in-class activity can cut to the bone.
Loss of Independence – When it comes time to take the car keys away from your elderly father, no one wants to do it because of the huge blow that will deliver to his ego, but parents who take the car keys away from a teen are often delivering just as huge a blow, with very little thought as to how that will affect the teen’s developing ego. Of course, it may be totally appropriate to take the keys away for bad behavior, but it can be done with dignity and empathy to soften the blow.
Loss of Status – When a corporate CEO gets the boot and loses a multi-million dollar salary or when an athlete has to forfeit a championship title for having used performance-enhancing substances, we all groan about the embarrassment and pain that loss must create. For teens, to be moved from “A” team to “B” team in football, to get a supporting role, rather than the lead in the school play, or to be demoted from 1st chair to 2nd chair in band, is just as embarrassing and painful.
Loss of Identity – We watch retired men shrivel and die if they do not find something satisfying to do to replace their work when they leave a job that held their source of identity. Teens can suffer as severely if evicted from a peer group, kicked out of a club or off a sports team, or if a new kid comes along and surpasses them in their area of expertise, even if their area of expertise is disrupting class and making the teacher angry.
Failure – It’s not too hard to figure out that if a teen were to fail a class or to be held back a year, that would constitute failure, and may be perceived as a trauma. However, teens are not always that interested in or concerned about grades or school. Teens can find failures in all sorts of arenas to be traumatic – failure to get a date to the dance, failure to drive fast enough to impress their friends, or even failure to smoke a cigarette properly or to keep up at a drinking party. Each of those failures could diminish a teen’s self-esteem.
Parents, educators, and other influential adults, armed with an increased awareness of what teens might consider traumatic can interact with teens more empathetically and increase the chances that the teen will navigate the trauma successfully, heal, and move on to the next challenge feeling supported and heard.