What Do We Mean By Trauma-Informed

By now, most people have heard the words “trauma-informed” in relation to therapeutic work.  I would even venture to say that it has become a buzz word. 

Our work must be trauma-informed.

That therapist should be trauma-informed.

That research needs to take a trauma-informed approach.

And while those who are doing the research and the therapy know what it means, the rest of the world may have no idea.

 As a survivor of complex trauma, I like to say that survivor-informed is trauma-informed.  I don’t say this because I want you to listen to me.  I say this because a trauma-informed approach revolves around the person who experienced the trauma.  It is their story.  It is their trauma.  It is their recovery.  And we need to let that process unfold in their way because they own it.  As partners in their recovery, we can’t take it away.  We can’t make it ours because it isn’t. 

Being trauma-informed is about empowerment.

— Elisabeth Corey

When someone has been traumatized, they need to feel it is ok to take back control over their life.  And we can support them in this process by letting them own it.  If they are not ready to discuss their trauma, then don’t discuss it.  If they want to take a walk instead of journaling their emotions, take a walk with them.  If they want to discuss their summer vacation or talk about their baseball tournament, talk with them.  And if they want to talk about the hard stuff, the awful details of their experience, let them.  Never tell them they can’t, or even worse, that they shouldn’t.  Let them explore their inner world at their pace and in their way.

This does not mean that we can’t discuss concerns, but these concerns should be brought in an empowering way.  They should never be directives.  The survivor should feel that their feelings, opinions and ideas will always be considered with as much or more weight than their recovery partner.  Conflict resolution should happen in a respectful and unconditional manner.  If the survivor feels empowered, the transformative relationship they build with you will heal their world.

Being trauma-informed is about understanding.  It requires partners in recovery to have a sense of how that trauma may impact that person.  Trauma doesn’t always show up in a nice, easily-identifiable package.  Sometimes, the emotions show up through disruptive behaviors.  Sometimes, the child may show signs of ADHD, anxiety, depression or mood-disorders.  The child may have emotional outbursts or attempt to reject those who love them.  They may find unsafe coping mechanism.

The problem with these internal trauma responses is they can be triggering for others.  We may find the person difficult to tolerate when they are exhibiting these symptoms of trauma.  And honestly, our reactions to their expressions of trauma can be re-traumatizing to them.  So when I mentioned the importance of understanding, I am not just talking about an understanding of the survivor.  I am talking about an understanding of ourselves.  Do we know what triggers us?  Do we know about our own trauma, because honestly, we have all experienced some trauma?  How are we addressing our own needs so that we can address the needs of others?

Being trauma-informed is about safety.  Their world has not been safe. Their boundaries have been invaded.  It is our job to help them understand that this relationship is safe. Their empowerment will help them understand that, but setting healthy boundaries will help too.  Make sure the survivor understands that you are not there to invade their space and will not allow  space to be invaded.  Once they understand that this relationship will not mirror any past abusive relationship, they will be able to take their healing to new heights with your guidance.

Being trauma-informed isn’t about saving a victim.  It isn’t about following a rigid framework of evidence-based research (although it can be).  It is about empowering, respecting and understanding ourselves and the survivors we support.  It is about showing them that relationships might look different than their previous relationships.  It is about providing them a setting for their healing and inviting them on their own journey to wellness.  So be trauma-informed.  And be the right kind of hero.

Elisabeth is a survivor of family-controlled child sex trafficking and sex abuse.  Her education in social work and her personal experiences as a survivor inform her intimate dialogue about the biological, psychological, social and spiritual aspects of trauma recovery, which she discusses on her blog at BeatingTrauma.com.  She writes about breaking the cycle of abuse through conscious parenting, navigating intimate relationships as a survivor, balancing the memory recovery process with daily life, coping with self-doubt, and overcoming the physical symptoms of a traumatic childhood.  She guides other survivors as they navigate life and parenting with private sessions, workshops and a forum.  She also works with media and organizations through her workshops, writing, and speaking.  Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.