Trauma-Informed Care: Tips for Youth Workers
When Ryan* walked into a local shelter with all of his possessions in a trash bag, staff offered him—along with support and other services—a sturdy, new duffle. But Ryan refused. He didn’t want to give up his trash bag. Even though it was dirty and ripped and awkward to carry, it was his. The staff finally convinced him that his things would be safer in the new one, so Ryan reluctantly placed all of his things, still in the trash bag, inside the duffle.
While Ryan’s reaction may seem strange to some, young people who have lived through trauma exhibit lots of behaviors that seem out of place, says Vicki Lawton, who directs youth programs at the Community Action Partnership of Western Nebraska, which has adopted a trauma-informed care approach to serving all young people.
“Our assumption is that we’re seeing survivors of trauma,” says Lawton. Some have parents in prison, some are kicked out of their home because of their sexual orientation or because the family simply can’t afford to keep them, some leave because of physical or sexual abuse, or a parent’s drug or alcohol use.
“That kind of trauma is horrible,” says Stacey Doerr, Executive Director of Fremont County Group Homes in Wyoming. “But we tell youth: ‘That doesn’t define you, and it doesn’t excuse your behavior now’… Our role is to make sure young people are not victims and don’t see themselves that way.”
While each young person’s response to trauma is unique, youth workers who take a trauma-informed approach try to understand each young person’s emotional triggers, build supportive relationships, and give youth opportunities to rebuild control in their lives.
In typical youth work, Lawton says, “good” behavior is rewarded and “bad” behavior has consequences. Trauma-informed youth work, on the other hand, views all behaviors, good and bad, as information. There’s always a reason for a particular behavior, Lawton says, and the youth worker’s job is to figure out what people, events, or things consistently trigger, or set off, particular reactions.
“It takes a lot of detective work,” Lawton says, “because it often feels like there’s no precipitating factor.”
It might be something seemingly benign, like a song or a carton of milk left out on the counter. “In the beginning,” Lawton says, “We don’t know what the triggers might be, and one young person could trigger another’s trauma.” So Community Action Partnership provides youth with individual apartments, to avoid roommates. Sometimes, young people have to deal with loneliness—and it’s more expensive than having young people share space—but Lawton thinks it works better in the long run.
“With some kids you can say, ‘What the heck was going on there?’ or ‘What were you thinking?’ But not kids who have been through trauma,” Doerr says. “Because they’re really not thinking.” Trauma impacts brain development in such a way that young people often can’t make complex—or even sometimes simple—decisions. When something has triggered an intense reaction, youth workers need to let young people calm down, and talk only when young people are really ready to listen.
Lawton agrees. “Young people can go from 0 to 60 in their emotions and even act out physically,” she says. “For kids who have experienced trauma, these are survival mechanisms.” Young people need help to get out of survival mode and feel safe accepting support.
Building trusting relationships is key to helping young people feel safe and open to accepting needed resources. Lawton says, “You really have to be less rule-oriented and more relationship-oriented.”
For example, on intake, instead of making demands up front and asking young people to fill out forms, just have a conversation and let youth know you’re interested in getting to know them, Lawton says.
“If they were taken out of their home at an early age, and someone sat there at a table with a pile of paperwork, those forms might trigger bad memories. So we work to establish a caring relationship first and then take care of the legalities and all the things we have to do as an agency.”
Youth only stay in a Basic Center Program for 21 days at most, but if a young person has connected with a particular staff person, Lawton says, the Community Action Partnership makes every effort to continue that relationship after the young person leaves the shelter.
“We had one young man in our TLP who was using substances and becoming violent. In the old days, we would have kicked him out of the program,” Lawton says. “But with trauma-informed care, as long as the safety and well-being of the other residents isn’t threatened, we could work to meet that young man where he was. We were able to build a relationship. Now, that young man is asking for drug and alcohol treatment, and the treatment has a much better chance of being successful than if the agency demanded it.”
Giving Youth a Sense of Control
Because control is often taken away in traumatic situations, trauma-informed care also emphasizes the importance of choice, allowing young people to re-build a sense of efficacy and personal control over their lives.
When young people come to Community Action Partnership, staff ask them, “What do you need in order to feel safe here?” Together, youth and staff make a list, and staff will tell youth, “This is what we need for you to stay here.” They both sign it, and Lawton says the process of creating the agreement empowers youth because they can have some control over their environment, and because it instills a sense of personal responsibility.
Staff also encourage youth to take walks outside or spend one hour every day doing something they want to do. Lawton says that every young person needs some time during the day that’s just theirs, and she’s found that youth value that time.
Young people won’t always make the choices you’d like them to make, but Doerr says the most important thing is to offer acceptance and let them know, ‘We’re here to help.’”
*Names have been changed.