09/12/2013 09:34 am ET Updated Nov 12, 2013

Taking Charge of Childhood Trauma

Defining Trauma

I once watched a friend hyperventilate. In seconds, she'd gone from calm to blue. What brought it on? I'd made a comment that triggered a terrible memory.

According to a University of Florida study, 43 percent of young people will have experienced a traumatic event by the age of 18. The word "trauma" conjures up terrifying images in our heads: rape, assault, terrorism, tornadoes -- things that, mercifully, most people will never go through. But experiences as "commonplace" as divorce, bullying, instability at home, and a parent's impaired caregiving ability could have the same effects on people as those extreme scenarios.

What defines an episode as trauma is not necessarily the event itself, but how the person reacts to it. If, for example, a girl witnesses an armed robbery in which the gun isn't loaded, she may still be traumatized, as long as she a) perceives it as dangerous, and b) feels horrified and helpless. 

These events sometimes cause Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). A recent study estimates that 5 percent of adolescents meet the criteria for the disorder -- twice the national average. But whether or not PTSD develops, teens who experience trauma are almost always changed. Chances are that someone you love, if not you yourself, knows this firsthand.

Arrested development

In young trauma survivors, we see the brain doing its best work -- and its worst.
During adolescence, the brain is strengthening and pruning connections: the ones that are used get cemented, and the ones that aren't, get cut. Here's an example of how it can work: For aspiring musicians, somewhere between 12 and 18 is a good time to pick up guitar, but a bad time to put it down.

Everything a teenager witnesses and does has implications for the future map of his brain. When a traumatic event occurs, his brain reworks its pathways to keep him from going through such an ordeal again. He may trust people more slowly, develop stronger and faster reflexes, or withdraw more quickly from difficult situations. These neurological reactions can help people cope, but they can also hurt them.

When this rewiring happens, it can take away the brain's capacity for growth in other areas. Teens are learning "grown-up" skills" like insight, prioritizing, impulse control, and logical reasoning. People who experience trauma early in life may be affected developmentally. Also, the hemispheres of young brains are still connecting, which is why teenagers can go from rational to hyper-emotional so swiftly and viciously. Duh. In most people, this improves with time. But for traumatized teenagers, it may never get fixed.

Unless it can. 

Gary Stangler, who works with kids in foster situations (a demographic with twice the PTSD rate of war veterans), knows teens who have been through hell. But he's seen that whatever the nature of the trauma, "young people have the most potential for recovery and resilience" between ages 14 and 25. Teenaged brains are already changing, so it's not impossible to make them change for the better.

Train Your Brain

Many people I know, myself included, have found these tools helpful to the healing process. Give them a try, or pass them along to someone else.

Create something. Art is an invaluable tool for survivors, and creativity is one indicator of resiliency. Pick a hobby! Paint, sew, sing, dance, garden. (Writing and music are my favorites.)

Be normal. Trauma isolates, but know this: you are not cosmically different from your peers. Be a teenager! Hang out, act silly, make mistakes. Not everything carries risk.
Watch your thoughts and actions like a movie. This is a kind of meditation, and one that takes practice. Try, when you can, analyzing the processes of your mind as though you were studying a trig equation or a block of Shakespeare. You'll start noticing when you're living in the past or acting out of fear.

Read something true. Clinical psychiatrist Jonathan Shay helps combat veterans shaken up by trauma with one of the oldest tools on the books: ancient literature. He likens patients with "psychological injury" to classical warriors like Achilles and Odysseus. Sometimes history (and mythology) can offer new perspectives.

Me, I've been drawn to the poetry from the First World War. Countless soldiers experienced shell shock, and all witnessed suffering and brutality. Many war poets put this into writing, and plenty even dealt with life after war. Check out Siegfried Sassoon's "Repression of War Experience," Wilfred Owen's "Insensibility," or Richard Aldington's "Bombardment."

Talk it out. A friend used to say, "You alone can do it, but you can't do it alone." There are plenty of good, trustworthy people in the world. Find one. Find more! Some are adults, some are professionals, some are just like us. And nobody's perfect -- don't panic if a new friend disappoints. Find a place that's comfortable, and take your time, because healing doesn't happen overnight.

Be open to taking care of yourself in different ways. Some people benefit from meeting with a psychologist, others need medication for their anxiety. There's no shame in either. 

Be gentle with yourself. You can't expect to get better in a day, or by sheer determination. We are all very human and need time for these things.

Most importantly, if you are in a dangerous situation, leave now. Do not talk yourself out of it. Every day in a safe environment is an opportunity to recover. 

Remember: Those who learn to fear can also learn to be fearless. Go for it, while you're still young.