Nothing is more tragic than a teenager whose life and emotional well-being is shattered by post-traumatic stress. Though parents worldwide would prefer to keep children sheltered from traumatic experiences, it just isn’t possible. Shootings, burglaries, sexual abuse and other sources of trauma are a part of our world. We will never be able to fully our protect children. Understanding how to help teenagers cope with traumatic experiences is the next line of defense.
A fully formed adult often fails to cope with trauma, developing post-traumatic stress disorder and other symptoms of impairment following traumatic exposure. The young brain is both more susceptible to damage and more resilient. On one hand, trauma at a young age can impact the very development of a brain that is not yet fully formed. On the other hand, young people have not yet solidified their coping mechanisms and can often develop methods of handling trauma that are unavailable to an older brain.
To help us understand how the teenage brain deals with trauma, researchers at Stanford University set out to examine the brains of teenagers who had experienced traumatic stress. In a study of fifty-nine teenagers, one thing stood out: gender mattered.
Both boys and girls had developed unique characteristics in the anterior circular sulcus. In boys, the area had grown. In girls, it had shrunk. This particular area of the brain is responsible for emotional awareness and empathy. In teenagers who have not experienced brain trauma, the anterior circular sulcus is roughly an equal size in both genders.
This strange finding leaves more questions than answers. We know that men and women process the world differently, but given that the anterior circular sulcus is usually similarly sized, how might this difference manifest itself behaviorally? Researchers are also not certain how this observation might change, depending upon when a traumatic injury occurs developmentally. More work needs to be done to answer these questions.