A psychodynamic understanding of trauma and adolescence : a case study exploration

Master Thesis


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University of Cape Town

This dissertation explores the unique ways in which trauma affects adolescents as opposed to children and/or adults. This is an area of research that has not received sufficient attention. The various approaches in defining the concept of trauma are outlined. Developmental challenges and difficulties regarding the period of adolescence are discussed. Emphasis is placed on particular vulnerabilities evoked during adolescence and the importance of looking at a case in its developmental and environmental context. The impact of the environment, which forms the backdrop to the study, is addressed with reference to the South African context. It is observed how trauma and underlying conflicts augment stress already present in adolescence and complicate successful resolution of developmental tasks, such as autonomy in late adolescence. The research takes the form of a case study of an adolescent girl, who experienced a traumatic assault when she was already struggling with the demands of an unplanned pregnancy. The study illustrates the manifestations in late adolescence of the adverse effects of violence-induced trauma as well as the impact of secondary trauma on the family. The adolescent was seen in the context of exploratory family therapy, which was conducted weekly for 8 months. This offered an opportunity to gain insight into the ways she presented symptoms of trauma to other family members. In this respect a psychodynamic approach is shown as a useful way to explore the emotional features after trauma, such as loss, guilt and difficulties with trust, intimacy and safety. This approach highlights the subjective experience of unexpected violence-induced trauma that overwhelms the ego and produces a state of helplessness. Psychodynamic phenomena, such as regression, defenses and the inner world of the adolescent are discussed in relation to trauma and provides the context in which the meaning of trauma can be understood.

Bibliography: leaves 66-76.