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We know that after any kind of trauma, including domestic violence, the after-effects can manifest in all sorts of ways, from angry outbursts to a feeling like you’re shutting down. In teenagers, trauma's effects are no different, except that teens may not have yet learned the coping mechanisms needed to deal with these strong emotions.
Burnout is a word often used to describe what happens when someone is overwhelmed with stress. This can come at any age or stage of life and can be caused by school, work, family commitments, and illness or trauma, among other things. We’ve talked about burnout before in the context of advocates who help survivors of domestic abuse, but burnout is also something teens can experience, too.
Four Signs of Burnout in Teens
Noticing burnout can mean looking for the following signs, says child psychologist Louise Egan:
1. Not sleeping or eating well. Is your teen falling asleep in class? Are they tired all the time? Are they skipping meals or picking at their dinner? It could be stress.
2. Increased irritability. Teens have a reputation for being moody, but if they’re beginning to lash out at those around them in anger, take note.
3. Wanting to spend all their time alone. This can mean locking themselves in their room. It can also look like withdrawing socially, avoiding friends and extracurricular activities or zoning out on their phones.
4. Losing interest in things they enjoy. When not even a surprise shopping trip, ice cream run or impromptu movie night can make your teen smile, it’s a sign that they may be burned out.
The symptoms of burnout overlap with the symptoms of children who have lived through childhood domestic violence (CDV). Some 15.5 million children in the U.S. live in families in which domestic violence occurred at least once in the previous year. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, witnessing violence between parents is the most influential risk factor for children to carry violent behavior from one generation to the next. Boys, especially, who witness domestic violence are twice as likely to abuse a partner as an adult.
Additional symptoms seen in kids who have lived through CDV include:
- Behavior problems
- Separation anxiety
- Low self-esteem
Childhood trauma can have lifelong effects, says the CDC. It may help for a teen or their parent to know their ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) score. While many survivors with traumatic childhoods have gone on to thrive later in life, they’ve done so with a supportive network of people behind them.
Acting Out or People-Pleasing are Protective Measures
David Tzall, Psy.D., a licensed psychologist out of Brooklyn, New York says that teens who have been through a trauma like abuse or domestic violence may begin to see everything from a threat-based perspective. As a result, they may think lashing out is a protective move.
“People are going to hurt me, so let me push everyone away as a result,” explains Tzall.
It can explain why some teens who come from homes where an abuser was present get in trouble more often at school or wind up in fights with friends. They may be labeled a “bad” kid when what they really need is compassion.
“When kids act out, they’re doing it for a reason,” Susan Bernstein, a Connecticut-based social worker and marriage and family therapist with expertise in domestic violence told DomesticShelters.org. “No one wakes up and wants to be in a fight. No one wants to be angry, aggressive, or scared. They are in a hyper-aroused state. They are so overwhelmed by circumstances.”
On the other hand, Tzall says that some teens come out of trauma as compulsive people-pleasers.
“They think ‘I’ll be safe because people will be happy around me.’”
What If Teens Won’t Talk About Burnout, Stress or Trauma?
To begin the healing process after a trauma like abuse, removing a child from a home where an abuser is present is half the battle, and protective parents should prioritize getting to safety first. After that, processing what happened can start. Although, anyone with teens knows that talking about their feelings isn’t always an easy ask.
“Even though they’re in a safe space with a parent who loves them and cares about them…this is not necessarily when the healing begins,” says Tzall. “Some teenagers may be pretty ambivalent about talking about their trauma, or ashamed about their trauma, or might not even consider it trauma. They’ve internalized a lot of the behaviors and messages from other people or believe that they’re at fault for it.” Tzall warns that teens may blame themselves after abuse by a parent, not even considering themselves a victim but rather a participant in the abuse.
It's also important to remember this: “Our memory is not like a movie camera. You’re not seeing it in a linear form. Teens could repress or inflate memories. Memories degrade and change over time.”
Talking to a trained counselor or therapist who treats domestic violence victims may help, as could therapies like EMDR. As much as you’re comfortable with as the parent or caregiver, and as much as the teen is comfortable with sharing, letting the school know about what’s going on at home could help as the teen begins to heal and possibly makes some mistakes in doing so.
Tzall also offers this straightforward advice for parents and caregivers: “If you don’t know what to do, don’t do anything. Sometimes we feel like we need to be doing something to be doing something. Sometimes the best we can do is support them and roll with it.” Trying to force any victim of trauma to open up, go to therapy or do any other sort of healing is like what an abuser did by forcing a victim to submit to their power and control. Instead of hovering, Tzall says to just be patient.
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“Say, whenever you’re ready, great. When teens have that support, it’s instrumental. They didn’t have that support before.”
And when they are ready to open up or talk to a therapist, Tzall says that’s when they deserve commendations.
“Praise them— you’re making a choice. It may not be the choice we want for them, but we also have to recognize and applaud the fact they’re making a choice.”
Teach Teens Resilience and Hope
While we might be tempted to preach to teens the benefits of resilience—aka, this experience will only make you stronger in the future; you can endure anything after this!—consider that hope has been shown to have measurable positive benefits in individuals’ well-being. Encourage teens to have hope for the future, whether it be a good grade on an upcoming exam, a college acceptance, a goal being met. Psychologists have found that hopeful people have a greater sense that life is meaningful and is actually instrumental for having resistance to face future challenges.
“We don’t just want trauma survivors to bounce back from adversity, we want them to move forward in their lives with new goals, supportive relationships and the abilities to overcome obstacles and barriers in achieving their dreams,” says Casey Gwinn, J.D., and Chan Hellman, authors of Hope Rising, How the Science of Hope Can Change Your Life.
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