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Childhood Experiences Shape Teen Outlook

In the past few years, we’ve all heard more and more in the media about childhood trauma, also often referred to as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). The National Institute of Mental Health defines childhood trauma as: “The experience of an event by a child that is emotionally painful or distressful, which often results in lasting mental and physical effects.”

Image of boy lying on the ground looking up to the sky

Some examples of ACEs include scary and confusing things kids can’t control, like accidents or natural disasters that turn a family’s life upside down, a chaotic home (such as one with domestic violence, substance abuse, or mental illness). Other examples of childhood trauma might result from physical or emotional abuse, a serious medical condition in the family, experiencing war, terrorism, or other forms of mass violence, among other things.

The feelings that come along with these traumatic childhood experiences sometimes get in the way of a child’s typical ability to grow emotionally and socially. When that happens, a child adapts by developing other coping skills like aggression; becoming angrier than a situation warrants or getting into physical fights, being a perfectionist or a people-pleaser, or seeming detached or “dazed.” The symptoms displayed by children that have experienced trauma can vary, and even change over time. Once he or she reaches their teens, the symptoms can get escalate to more serious things, including drug and alcohol use, self-harm, suicidal thoughts or actions, running away, risky behaviors, unhealthy/abusive romantic relationships, etc.

There are things parents can do if you notice some of the symptoms of ACEs in your child. Of course, talking to your child is a significant first step. Perhaps he or she will tell you what happened in a safe place like alone in the car or a private bedroom chat. Talk to teachers, coaches and healthcare providers in case they notice something or can be supportive of your child if necessary.

Another opportunity to help your child is to engage professionals. Parents, no matter how well-intentioned, can’t do everything and sometimes assistance from the outside is warranted and in fact, often the best option for overcoming trauma and a child’s long-term success.

SEARHC has two programs for adolescents and teens that aim to help them make the changes necessary to succeed.

Alaska Crossings, “Crossings” for short, is SEARHC’s short-term intensive behavioral health program in a wilderness environment for youth, ages 12 to 18, that combines therapeutic interventions with outdoor and expedition activities to provide an essential opportunity for building life-skills and achieving personal growth. ​​

The aim of Crossings is helping teens figure out some of the underlying psychological or emotional challenges that may have contributed to their poor decision-making and help resolve them to make better daily behavioral choices.

While Crossings does not include youth substance abuse treatment, Raven’s Way, SEARHC’s nationally accredited voluntary intensive residential treatment program for Alaskan youth ages 13-18, combines conventional substance abuse treatment, adventure-based therapy, and Native cultural activities.

Students at Raven’s Way spend an average of 82-120 days learning how to choose a healthy, substance-free lifestyle. The licensed/certified staff focuses on developing physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual strengths, as well as communication and problem-solving skills.

If you aren’t sure whether or not your teen would benefit from one of these programs, please follow the links below and contact either or both for additional information.

The information presented here was reviewed by Stephen Helgeson, SEARHC Senior Manager of Adolescent Programs and Jerrie Dee Harvey, SEARHC Behavioral Health Program Manager. (April 2019)

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The SEARHC Crisis Help Line, 1.877.294.0074, is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week to residents of Southeast Alaska.