People tend to talk more about the “freeze response” in teens who have experienced trauma than to accept the reality of what “fight or flight” can look like. According to research recently published in JNeurosci., traumatic stress can cause aggression by strengthening two brain pathways involved in emotion. Understanding how traumatic experiences may lead to aggression in teens helps give parents and professionals the tools to connect with teens by focusing on the underlying emotions, rather than the negative behaviors they may display.
How Are Trauma and Aggression in Teens Related?
People suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder often display heightened aggression, caused by unknown changes in the amygdala. An almond-shaped structure nestled deep inside the brain, the amygdala plays an essential role in emotion, social behaviors, and aggression. When teens with PTSD became hyperaroused by perceived threats–whether this is disrespect from others, feeling trapped or anxious, or being threatened–their survival mode instinct kicks in. For many people, fight or flight can look like outbursts of anger, self-destructiveness, or even verbal threats as a way to process emotion or to defend one’s sense of safety.
Many teens who have experienced trauma report that these behaviors feel out of their control and that it was not their intention to hurt themselves or their relationships. Because of this, they may struggle with taking accountability for behavior issues as they may not be aware of the impact or they may not feel like it represents who they are. This is why it is important to take time to listen to those who are struggling with behavior issues in order to respond more effectively, rather than react by matching their anger. Underneath their anger, teens with PTSD often hold onto feelings of shame, fear, and sadness that slip under the radar.
How to Support Teens who Struggle with Aggression and Anger
- Remember that social learning affects behavior. While aggression is a normal human instinct on a physiological level, aggressive behavior is often influenced by witnessing or being exposed to aggression in others. Teens who have witnessed angry outbursts or been victims of violence and bullying are more likely to normalize these experiences as part of their worldview. As a result, they may be less likely to take accountability for aggressive behavior, if it is just a reflection of the way they feel they have been treated by others.
- Validate that anger is a normal human response, particularly after experiencing trauma. The goal of teaching teens anger management is not for them to control or repress their anger, but rather to teach them to make peace with it and use it in a healthy way. Feelings of anger and aggressive impulses should be explored, not punished.
- Ask what may be underneath anger and aggression. Instead of focusing on the consequences of angry outbursts and behavior issues, look for the potential causes of their behavior. Most aggressive behavior and impulses are triggered by specific conversations, events, or underlying emotions. Sweeping these triggers under the rug to focus on the behavior invalidates their experience.
- Role model “opposite action.” Teens don’t respond well to being told “no” or that they are “wrong.” But, teaching them new skills and ways to respond can be difficult when they are used to doing things in a certain way. The adolescent brain is highly neuroplastic and responds well to mirroring other’s behavior that they admire. In wilderness therapy, teens are surrounded by a supportive group of staff and peers that role model healthier ways of dealing with stress and anger and offer these alternatives to those struggling to adopt these skills.
- Teach them anger management coping skills. Nature is a natural remedy for intense feelings of anger, as it has a calming effect on one’s nervous system. This is just one way that wilderness therapy programs are effective in helping teens manage their anger. Clinical programming in wilderness programs are designed to give teens the skills they need to self-regulate and respond more effectively in a variety of settings, including in groups of people, the classroom, and during recreation activities. In groups of peers struggling with similar issues, teens gain greater self-awareness through developing problem-solving and leadership skills.
Trails Carolina Can Help
Trails Carolina is one of the nation’s leading wilderness therapy programs that helps young people ages 10-17 who are struggling with behavioral and emotional issues. This program uses adventure-based therapy to help students gain a new sense of self-awareness, confidence, and independence. The skills they learn throughout the wilderness program offer long-term benefits towards their ability to successfully self-navigate in the real world. By removing teens from their fast-paced environment into a safe, nurturing, and peaceful environment, they are able to focus on improving and reflecting upon their behavior.
Contact us at 800-975-7303 to learn more about our wilderness therapy program!