Homeless Youth and Trauma

By April 12, 2019May 11th, 2020Blog

When people think of the homeless, they very rarely consider the millions of homeless children trying desperately to stay afloat. Approximately 2.5 million youth experience homelessness per year. Besides losing their home, community, friends and overall sense of stability and safety, countless homeless youth are also victims of violence or other traumatic events. While these homeless youth come from a wide variety of backgrounds, research implies that the majority of them have experienced some form of trauma. 

The effects of suffering from trauma at such an early age can significantly affect them for the rest of their lives. For example, normal biological function is partly determined by the environment. When a child grows up afraid or under constant or extreme stress, the immune system and the body’s stress response systems may not develop normally. Children with a history of complex trauma can develop chronic or recurrent physical complaints, such as headaches or stomach aches. Additionally, when these children grow up and are exposed to the ordinary levels of stress experienced in daily living, their bodies will respond as if they are under extreme stress. For example, they may experience physiological symptoms such as rapid breathing or heart palpitations or they could potentially shut down entirely when experiencing a stressful situation. Such responses can make others perceive them as overreacting or as unresponsive or detached since their reactions are far more extreme than what the average person may exhibit. 

Unfortunately, once youth become homeless,  they are typically re-traumatized by their new hostile environment, which means they now have to deal with their past traumas while simultaneously learning to cope with new traumas.

All of these responses are symptoms of a variety of mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety disorders, PTSD, suicidal ideation, attachment issues, and substance abuse disorders. 


Trauma is defined as an emotional and psychological response to an event or experience that is deeply disturbing or distressing, such as homelessness or the events that would cause youth to become homeless. According to the American Psychological Association, the most common symptoms of trauma include: 

  • A change in interpersonal relationship skills, such as an increase in conflict or a more withdrawn and avoidant personality.
  • Feelings become intense and sometimes unpredictable. Irritability, mood swings, anxiety, and depression can be manifested by such feelings.
  • Fear that the emotional event will be repeated.
  • Confusion or difficulty making decisions.
  • Physical symptoms such as headaches, nausea and chest pain.
  • Flashbacks – repeated and vivid memories of the event that lead to physical reactions such as rapid heartbeat or sweating.
  • Sleep or eating issues.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

PTSD can develop after a very stressful, terrifying or disturbing event, or after a prolonged traumatic experience, such as homelessness or the events that would cause youth to become homeless. While not everyone who experiences homelessness suffers from PTSD, those who do are by no means weak; PTSD is not considered a sign of weakness. 

PTSD can be grouped into four categories, including:

  • Avoiding. People with PTSD will avoid people, thoughts and memories, situations, and places that remind them of their trauma. This can lead to feelings of detachment and isolation from friends and family and can even result in the loss of interest in activities that they once enjoyed. 
  • Reliving. Those with PTSD will relive the ordeal through memories and thoughts that remind them of the trauma they had experienced. This can result in feelings of isolation and detachment from friends and family as well as a general loss of interest in activities that they used to enjoy. 
  • Increased arousal. Symptoms of increased arousal include excessive emotions, difficulty relating to others, such as feeling or showing affection; difficulty falling and/or staying asleep, irritability, increased temper, decrease inability to concentrate and easily startled. There are also some physical symptoms that would fall into this category such as increased blood pressure and heart rate, muscle tension, rapid breathing, nausea, and diarrhea. 
  • Negative thoughts and mood. This would include thoughts and feelings related to estrangement, blame, and other negative behaviors.  

PTSD, when left untreated, can lead to a variety of serious symptoms, including: 

  • Anger management issues. For some, instances of recurring anxiety and stress can lead to outbursts of rage and anger, potentially resulting in child or spousal abuse or even public violence.
  • Severe depression. Depression is always a risk with PTSD. Many sufferers will demonstrate suicidal thoughts or tendencies while in the midst of a PTSD episode.
  • Loneliness. Individuals tend to end up isolated and alone because PTSD has the potential to make a person very difficult to be around and is often undiagnosed.  

Those who experience these symptoms, especially homeless youth, would benefit greatly from professional guidance if they find themselves unable to gain control of their lives or if they continue to suffer from PTSD symptoms for more than a month.

Acute Stress Disorder

Acute Stress Disorder is the development of severe anxiety, dissociation, and other symptoms that occur within one month after experiencing an extremely traumatic event. For this reason, homeless youth are greatly susceptible to acute stress disorder. Someone with this disorder may experience difficulty concentrating, feel detached from their body, experience the world as unreal or dreamlike, or have increasing difficulty recalling specific details of the event. Additionally, there are many overlapping symptoms between this disorder and PTSD.

Specific acute stress disorder symptoms include: 

  • The person experienced, witnessed, or was confronted with (e.g., can include learning of) an event or events that involved actual or threatened death or serious injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of self or others.
  • Though not required, the person’s response is likely to involve intense fear, helplessness, or horror.

Also, either during or following the event, three or more of the following dissociative symptoms will be present: 

  • Derealization
  • Depersonalization
  • Detachment from society or absence of emotional responsiveness
  • Loss of awareness of his or her surroundings 
  • Inability to recall an important aspect of the trauma (dissociative amnesia)

For acute stress disorder to be diagnosed, the symptoms above must cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning or impairs the individual’s ability to pursue some necessary task.

Early Intervention and Treatment is Important 

Intervene as soon as possible on behalf of a youth suffering from homeless trauma. Children’s bodies and minds are still developing making it crucial to do whatever possible to remove them from their traumatic, hostile environments. Uncharacteristic behaviors become increasingly destructive. Over time, buried and suppressed memories become more and more powerful. The traumatic events these children experience will affect them for the rest of their lives. It is important for them to get treatment as soon as possible to prevent their lives from being ruined forever. 

 Accelerated Resolution Therapy® (ART) is an innovative, evidence-based therapy for PTSD, anxiety, depression, stress, and similar mental health issues. Initially, the therapy was primarily used to help veterans suffering from PTSD. One of the major advantages is the speed at which ART is able to bring relief. Generally, one to five sessions are needed, not months or years of expensive psychiatric treatment. 

Accelerated Resolution Therapy works by reprogramming the traumatic memories that are preventing a person from enjoying the full life they deserve. The techniques work equally well on anyone suffering from trauma, regardless of the type of trauma experienced. At the end of the day, trauma is still trauma.

Regardless of how bad things may be, there is hope and always someone available to help you through difficult times.  Contact ART International to learn more or to find an ART therapist near you.