Have you ever heard of “Secondary Trauma?” It can feel like your world is crumbling, making you moody and anxious. Let’s dig into how it can affect us and why dealing with it together matters.

Navigating secondary trauma means understanding how others’ experiences can mess with us and then doing something about it. From school violence to trauma exposure overload, we’ll share ways to face this mess with our parents and peers.

What is secondary trauma?

It’s a psychological phenomenon that happens when you’re indirectly affected by a traumatic situation. Essentially, it’s feeling the impact of something challenging happening to someone else, and it can mess with your emotions and headspace. Imagine getting stressed about something intense, even though you’re not directly involved. For example, let’s say your best friend is going through a traumatic event, such as parental divorce. You might feel overwhelmed and stressed out, even though you’re not the one going through it. You might emotionally mirror what your friend is going through, and that’s secondary trauma kicking in. It’s a bit complex, but understanding it can be helpful, especially if you notice it happening to you or someone close.

Potential triggers of secondary trauma

  • Exposure to distressing content on social media platforms
  • Continuous exposure to traumatic events through news outlets
  • Learning about the traumatic experiences of peers within your school or community
  • Traumatic events experienced by family members
  • Participation in online communities or forums where traumatic experiences are shared
  • Viewing traumatic events depicted in entertainment media such as movies, TV shows, and video games
  • Engaging with academic studies or discussions involving traumatic historical or current events

How much does secondary trauma affect teens?

Let’s dive into secondary trauma, especially when it hits our teenage years. Around 7 million 16-18-year-olds in the U.S. deal with secondary trauma, and tackling this issue is essential. At this age, our brains are still figuring things out, and when exposed to trauma, it can have a negative impact. It can mess with how we do in school, our friendships, and our overall mental health. So, let’s look deeper and tackle secondary trauma for our mental well-being.

Have you felt any of these before?

  • Scared Stiff: You might feel super scared, like your safety blanket got ripped away, and you’re unsure if it’ll ever return.
  • Constant Nervousness: It’s like having butterflies in your stomach that won’t go away. Every little sound or unexpected thing can make you jump.
  • Heartbroken: It’s like someone took a piece of your heart away. You might miss friends, teachers, or even just the feeling of everyday things.
  • Super Angry: Imagine a volcano inside you that’s ready to erupt. You might be mad at the person who caused this or the unfairness of it all.
  • Lost and Confused: It’s like being in a fog where nothing makes sense. You might ask, “Why did this happen?” and not find any satisfying answers.
  • Feeling Guilty: That feeling of “Why me?” It’s like that, but you also wonder why you made it while others didn’t.
  • Down in the Dumps: Everything seems gray, and it’s hard to find joy in things you used to love. It’s like carrying a heavy backpack full of sadness.
  • Always On Edge: Imagine being a superhero with super senses, it’s constantly feeling on edge but without a reasonable trigger. You’re always looking out for danger.
  • Bad Dreams and Flashbacks: It’s like your mind playing a scary movie on repeat. Nightmares and flashbacks can sneak up on you when you least expect it.
  • Lone Wolf Vibes: You might want to be by yourself more, needing time to process everything without the noise of the world around you.
  • Trust Issues: It’s hard to believe people will have your best interest. Trust becomes like a fragile vase – it’s tough to put back together once broken.
  • Survival Mode: You start thinking more about making it through each day rather than planning for the future. It’s like your brain switches to fight or flight.

Many of these experiences happen after experiencing something impactful. Take notice if these feelings arise from an indirect situation. It could be Secondary Trauma. 

Effects of School shootings and other campus violence

Let’s talk about something burdensome – school shootings and campus violence. It’s not just the people directly involved who feel the effects. It ripples out and touches entire communities, states, and even the country.

According to The Washington Post, in the past 25 years, a staggering 360,000 students have been affected by gun violence at school. That’s a huge number, not something to take lightly.

Think about it – if you hear about a shooting at a school, it’s normal to feel worried, right? Same if you hear about a friend experiencing a shooting. But it goes beyond just feeling scared in the moment. It sticks with you and makes you wonder if you’re safe at school. That’s a big deal. It is harder to learn, when we are focused on our survival daily.

Parents and families get worried, too. They’re always thinking about their kids’ safety, and it’s hard for them to shake off that fear.

These shootings leave a mark that lasts. We can work to make schools safer and support each other through these challenging times, even if it is just talking it out. 

Teens and car accidents

Did you know that teens are more likely to get into car crashes than any other age group in the U.S., according to Hawkin Law? It’s a scary statistic, but it’s essential to be aware of.

Alan Misbach, a clinical social worker and a professor, shared some thoughts on how these accidents can affect us, even if we’re not directly involved. “In high school, I had a friend severely injured in a car accident. Back then, I only saw him days after recovery, and I didn’t experience trauma. However, today’s teens, with access to social media and immediate news, are more likely to experience secondary trauma when exposed to photos and details of a teen accident.”

He talked about how seeing photos and hearing details about a teen’s accident can strike us, even if we’re not there. When Alan saw an accident directly – the level of exposure changed how he felt about it afterward.

So, even if you’re not in the accident, it’s normal to feel shaken up by it, especially with increased access to information. Remember, it’s okay to talk about how you’re feeling and reach out for support if needed. We’re all in this together.

Does social media cause trauma?

Social media plays a role in secondary trauma among teens. We are more exposed to violence and details beyond a local scope. 

Social media has caused a flood of information. Often, it needs to be more accurate and balanced information. I have seen this firsthand with students now more than ever stressing about climate change. They believe the planet will die before they do.” -Alan Misbach, LCSW.

Secondary trauma inside the home or friend groups

Violence can be everywhere. You can find it inside homes and even within friend groups. 

According to Domestic Violence Services Inc., 5 million teens every year are seeing this kind of violence at home. “When I was younger, I saw it too. My parents were in it, and later, I’d go to a friend’s house and witness their parents hurting them, too. It felt like that was just how things were, you know? But looking back, I realize how messed up that is.” -Shandy Clark, SSW

Survivors who don’t get support, can be affected in many ways. An example of this is when violence cycles move from one generation to the next. “My friend, who was once a victim, ended up becoming a part of that cycle, too, hurting their partners later on.

What I find terrifying is that I believed in the normalcy of violence as a young girl. We often continue to believe this false truth into adulthood. Allowing violence to join their future homes.” -Shandy Clark, SSW 

We can’t let that happen. We’ve got to break this cycle and make sure violence doesn’t become the norm. It’s not easy, but talking about it and supporting each other is a good start.

Options for those exposed to violence: 

Ensure your safety above all else but here are some options you may want to consider.

  • Calling 911 if possible when witnessing violence.
  • Talking to an adult you trust. 
  • Encourage those in a violent situation to seek help.

From awareness to healing

Moving from awareness to healing involves creating safe spaces for affected individuals. This allows for expressing emotions, seeking support, and engaging in therapeutic interventions. Encouraging a culture of empathy and compassion within communities can contribute to reducing the stigma associated with seeking help for secondary trauma. By addressing the needs of those indirectly impacted, we can foster a more compassionate and resilient society that supports the well-being of all its members.

How can we communicate how we feel?

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by what you’ve seen or heard, it’s okay to talk about it with someone you trust. While friends are a surefire start, talking with a trusted adult can help bring about change, if needed. Here’s how you can do it:

  • Pick a Good Time and Place: Find a quiet spot where you won’t be interrupted. It could be at home, after school, or at a friend’s house.
  • Share How You’re Feeling: Be honest about how you’re feeling. Tell them what’s been bothering you and how it’s been affecting you. It is important to lay out any outcomes you may want to achieve from the conversation.
  • Ask for Help: Be bold and ask for help. Let your trusted individual know if you need support in dealing with what you’re going through.
  • Listen to Their Response: Pay attention to what they say. They might have some helpful thought re-frames or suggestions.
  • Keep in Touch: Stay connected with them afterward. It’s important to know you have someone you can talk to whenever you need to.

Remember, it’s okay to talk about your feelings, and it’s essential to reach out for support when you need it. You’re not alone in this.


Addressing secondary trauma demands a collective effort. With 7 million teens in the U.S. exposed to secondary trauma each year, the impact is substantial, affecting academic performance and mental health. Awareness is crucial, and creating safe spaces for expression and support is essential.

From school shootings to car accidents and social media exposure, various sources contribute to secondary trauma. We must actively communicate, recognize signs, and address them. Open dialogue, active listening, and validation are crucial elements in fostering resilience.

Mitigating stigma through community empathy is vital in promoting healing. Recognizing the broader societal repercussions, especially in cases like school shootings, emphasizes the need for comprehensive strategies. By collectively embracing a proactive approach, we can build a society that supports healing and recovery. In navigating these challenges together, families play a pivotal role in fostering the well-being of teenagers impacted by secondary trauma.