Teens and Young Adults: The Impact of Trauma on Development

This level offers information about the impact of trauma on the four aspects of development identified in Typical Development.


Physical: Effects of Trauma

Among youth who have suffered trauma, puberty is often delayed or accelerated. For teenagers who already feel stigmatized by trauma, the loss of control over their bodies with the onset of puberty may make them feel more physically awkward than their peers. Adolescents who are particularly sensitive to stress because of trauma are more vulnerable to feeling overcome by fear and/or aggression; the aggression might be directed at others, as in fighting or online bullying, or at towards themselves, as in abusing substances, engaging in self-harm, or putting themselves in dangerous situations. For young adults, earlier or repeated trauma may impair the development of social and sexual relationships. A history of trauma weakens the immune system, thus predisposing young adults to a variety of potentially life-threatening illnesses. Because of unhealthy behavior and lifestyle choices, traumatized young adults are also more vulnerable than their peers to early parenthood and sexually transmitted diseases.


Cognitive: Effects of Trauma

Depending on the timing, duration, and intensity of the trauma, adolescents may have trouble thinking clearly, reasoning, and problem solving. Traumatized teens may find themselves at odds with their peers because of the difficulty they have taking in new information and considering multiple perspectives. They may have difficulties maintaining attention and curiosity, particularly if they are distracted by traumatic images or associations. Traumatized young adults may have more difficulty than their peers in managing the cognitive tasks required for seeking or maintaining employment. They may be easily overwhelmed and confused if they receive multiple instructions simultaneously. They may also have trouble concentrating and approaching tasks in a logical order. Their unrealistic self-evaluation—whether overly positive or negative—can interfere with both formal learning and on-the-job training.


Social: Effects of Trauma

Social relationships are often difficult for traumatized teenagers, affording them little pleasure and often causing them physical and emotional pain. Some teens act out sexually and/or attempt to manage intense feelings with alcohol and drugs. Many traumatized youth are socially isolated and have only superficial relationships. Without a robust sense of their own identity, they are vulnerable to putting aside their own feelings and values in order to try to please and fit in with others. In young adulthood traumatized individuals often become more isolated, lacking support from friends and mentors. In terms of education or employment, they may function below their capacity. Sexual activity may lack empathy and reciprocity. Rather than viewing relationships as sources of satisfaction, they are often seen as threatening and potentially hurtful.


Emotional: Effects of Trauma

Traumatized teens often have a much harder time than their peers establishing a cohesive identity and may be vulnerable to taking on the identity of another as a way of resolving their confusion.  Low self-esteem, lack of confidence, and hurtful relationships in the past often make it hard for them to share their feelings or ask for help. Young adults with a history of trauma often continue to be emotionally volatile or— at the other end of the spectrum—emotionally deadened. It is often difficult for them to imagine themselves in the future and to make decisions that promote future well-being. Because of their history of unsafe and/or hurtful relationships, they do not see relationships as a source of satisfaction and comfort.



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