What Does “Trauma-Informed” Mean? – Trauma Basics

One out of four children in the United States will experience some sort of trauma by the age of four. Trauma can have lifelong impacts, creating changes to our biology, genetics, behavior, and ultimately a myriad of lifetime health outcomes.

Looking through a trauma-informed lens allows us to have effective interventions to help individuals (both children and adults) reach their full potential. Before we jump in to what it means to be trauma-informed, we must first learn about trauma and its effects on a person’s life.

What is trauma?

Trauma is a painful emotional experience caused by an event or events that challenge a person’s sense of safety. These events are often sudden and unexpected.

Children and adolescents who witness or experience violent situations are likely to have traumatic reactions. While traumatic events are often not preventable, traumatic reactions can be reduced through early intervention and therapy. It’s important that we remain trauma-informed, and ask “What happened to that child?” as opposed to “What’s wrong with that child.” A trauma-informed lens changes the narrative and helps us provide proper treatment for big behaviors and emotions.

Learning about trauma and its effects on a child’s mental and physical health opens up your eyes. It is a step in the direction in understanding the adverse experiences that children and adults carry. Consequently, these experiences shape their lives for better or for worse. Furthermore, it helps you understand why a child may not be able to focus or sit still, why she may lash out or misbehave. Often these behaviors are expressions of need because something has been lost.

Trauma takes away a child’s sense of safety, self/body-image, and trust. It also disrupts developing healthy attachments and relationships. Being trauma-informed changes the question from “what is wrong with you?” to “what happened to you?” More importantly, it teaches you to respond to the need, not the behavior, of a child.

What are ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences)?

The groundbreaking work of CDC-Kaiser Permanente resulted in the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACEs). One of the largest investigations into childhood abuse and neglect, ACEs uncovered the long-term adult physical and mental health effects of adversity.

Conducted from 1995 to 1997, ACEs involved over 17,000 participants. These participants received physical exams  and completed confidential surveys regarding their childhood, current health, and behaviors. What was discovered was staggering. The study revealed that because of adversities experienced in childhood, children’s developing brains were so profoundly harmed that the effects could be seen many years later.

Consequently, adults who experienced adversities, including physical, sexual and verbal abuse, or physical and emotional neglect, are far more likely to experience chronic disease and mental illness. Additionally, a child could experience ACEs through a family member who is depressed or diagnosed with other mental illness. Children could also experience it because an adult in their household was addicted to alcohol or another substance, or in prison. Other adversities include witnessing domestic violence and losing a parent to separation, divorce or other reason. Bullying is also considered an ACE factor.

Trauma Triangle ACES

Today, ACEs are measured based on a simple set of questions regarding childhood experiences. You can learn more about the ACEs study on your journey to becoming trauma-informed.

What does it mean to be “trauma-informed”?

As parents and guardians, it can be difficult to know how to respond to our children after a traumatic event has occurred. Frequently, we are overwhelmed with our own reactions to what happened and it takes all we have to make it through the day. Traumatic events often affect the entire family including parents, making it more challenging to support your child emotionally.

What is truma-informed and how can parents, caregivers, and educators become trauma-informed?

Many times, children do not immediately appear to be affected by what they saw or heard. We may assume that if they are not talking about what happened then the event must not have left a negative imprint on them. However, even if your children do not show any visible changes in their behavior, the experiences that they have gone through can have a lasting impact. Many children who experience a traumatic situation attempt to avoid painful or scary memories as a way to deal with the overwhelming experience.

In fact, research has increasingly shown “that experiences in childhood have relatively more impact on the developing child than experiences that occur later in life”. (Perry, 2000a) Reactions to a traumatic situation can develop in any child regardless of age, gender, income level or prior emotional health.

Without the proper emotional support, children can begin to show behavioral and emotional difficulties including:

  • Difficulty concentrating in school
  • Lowered grades
  • Increased irritation and aggression
  • Withdraw from family members or others
  • Sleeping difficulties
  • Excessive worrying about one’s safety or someone else’s safety in the home
  • Regressive behaviors (acting younger than one’s age)

How to be trauma-informed 

Left untreated, traumatic experiences can have a lifelong negative impact on the child’s physical and emotional health. This ultimately impacts our whole community with increased costs associated with adult mental health services, social services, and criminal justice costs.

trauma-informed resources for mental health professionals

During a traumatic event, our body reacts by releasing the potent hormone cortisol — often called ‘the stress hormone.’ While cortisol is necessary for survival functions (i.e. fight or flight) by providing us a burst of energy and lower sensitivity to pain, it can become toxic if a prolonged state of stress occurs. Over time, new brain patterns can emerge based on increased levels of cortisol. Research on children and adults has shown that damage to the brain caused by cortisol results in problems with emotional regulation, impulse control, rational thinking, and socialization.

Children who have been exposed to traumatic situations such as witnessing domestic violence, homicide, shooting, death, assault, fire, and community violence may exhibit behaviors that look similar to Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder symptoms. These can include decreased ability to concentrate and increased impulsivity or agitation. Proper assessment and treatment are necessary to best support the child in navigating their experience.

ChildSavers’ trauma-informed services

ChildSavers is the only nonprofit in Virginia using a coordinated prevention and intervention model to prepare children for lifelong learning, address mental health, and recover from trauma. We were one of the first ten child guidance clinics in the United States, and the first in the South, and we are the oldest provider of mental health services for children in the metro Richmond area licensed by the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services.

As our knowledge grows and the community changes, we adopt new models and best practices to meet the needs of children.

Trauma-informed child care resources

ChildSavers offers trauma-informed child care resources and training for providers and educators.

Studies have shown that by age four, one out of every four children have either witnessed or experienced an event that could be considered traumatic. Additionally, a child and parent survey of 155 Head Start participants showed that 78% of children and 66% of parents reported that they had been exposed to at least one type of community violence in the form of beatings, shootings, stabbings, or robberies.  If not addressed, these traumatic events can lead to difficulties later on life, such as alcoholism, depression, poor health, and other diseases like cancer (Holmes, Levy, Smith, Pinne, Neese, 2014).

While it may not be possible to prevent these traumatic events, a consistent environment that promotes feelings of safety and care also provides the ideal setting in which to identify those children affected by traumatic events (Holmes et al., 2014).  Additionally, studies have shown that due to the limited resources for prevention and treatment, it is more effective and more affordable to implement prevention and early intervention programs during pre-school years than it later on in life (Kingston & Tough, 2014).

ChildSavers’ trauma-informed Child Development Services team work to provide the tools early care professionals need to deliver quality child care to the children and families that receive their services.  Through our core programs we provide guidance on developing safe and stimulating early care environments, supportive teacher/child interactions, and healthy foundations for building a resilient child.  These supports give children what they need to bounce back when faced with one of life’s most critical moments whether that is building their brain and meeting their milestones or recovering from a traumatic event.

Trauma-informed mental health services for children

Early intervention through therapy can prevent many trauma-related symptoms from developing. Trauma-informed therapy at ChildSavers provides children with the opportunity to openly express their thoughts and feelings in a safe environment.

Children often have difficulty talking about painful things that they have witnessed or have happened to them. Our therapists at ChildSavers use integrative therapies including play therapy and art therapy to make it easier for children to express themselves.

Therapeutic interventions provided by Trauma Response clinicians focus on re-establishing safety, developing emotional regulation skills, identifying resources, and enhancing resiliency. A primary focus of our work is to help the child resolve the trauma experience by reconnecting the mind with the body. This connects the memories of trauma with the ways the body responded during and after the trauma. Successful integration of the mind and body experience using integrative techniques can alleviate many traumatic stress reactions and prevent future distress.

ChildSavers also offers Immediate Response therapy, available for children experiencing a mental health emergency in Richmond, VA. We are available 24/7, 365 days per year to respond to children ages 2 -17 experiencing immediate trauma and/or a mental health crisis and can offer support over the phone or meet you on scene.

Trauma resources and training

Trauma-informed resource for mental health and early child care professionals:

Information about Trauma for parents and guardians of children:

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