Be Trauma Aware

Understanding trauma and how it impacts the experiences of the young people you care for can help in many ways.  In particular, this means you learn to understand how young people respond to their trauma experiences and by sharing your knowledge, you can help young people also understand the impact their experiences have on them – why they do what they do. 

Understand a Young Person’s Responses to Trauma

Whilst trauma affects young people in very different ways, there are some common reactions that they may experience. 

Avoidance Arousal Changed Thinking
  • Avoidance of reminders (internal / external) of the traumatic experience
  • Dissociation
  • Changed behaviour - withdrawal
  • Substance use
  • Anger outbursts
  • Vigilance
  • Increased physiological responses
  • Anxiety
  • Poor sleep
  • Self-injury
  • Taking risks
  • Bias towards seeing the world as unsafe and threatening
  • Negative beliefs about self-efficacy and coping
  • Poor concentration and memory
  • Re-living the event


Consider that for young people who use substances, these symptoms might be masked. For instance, a young person may use alcohol or cannabis to manage feeling constantly anxious or to cope with distressing memories.

Complex Trauma

If young people have experienced repeated trauma such as physical and/or sexual abuse, particularly when they were young, they often experience difficulties that are ongoing and more complex.  Following are some areas which complex trauma can affect.

Emotional Regulation

Have difficulties managing their emotions.  For instance they may have problems recognising emotions or have extreme emotional reactions.

Impulse Control

Are impulsive, reckless or engage in high-risk behaviours such as frequent thoughts of suicide or self-injury.

Interpersonal Relationships

Have difficulties with relationships.  They may find it hard to trust people, get involved in exploitative relationships or often have conflict with their friends.


May act younger than what they are.  Experiencing trauma when they are still developing can mean some young people get ‘stuck’ developmentally or may even act quite ‘childish’ when they are triggered.

Talk to young people about trauma and how it may have affected them

Talking about trauma can be distressing and confronting but each discussion can be an opportunity to support the young person you care for.  These conversations can be really valuable to helping them understand their own experiences and not feel so isolated.  It can also help them see that their reactions are often ‘normal’ and how trauma impacts different areas of their life.   

What is important is to be sensitive.  It is not necessary to get the young person to describe the details of their experiences but rather they may just focus on the type of experiences they have had.  

When talking to young people about the effects of trauma, consider:

  • Focusing on exploring, highlighting and building on the young person’s strengths, skills and supports that they have already
  • Reinforce that there are more supports and treatment available
  • Your explanation of trauma is related to the young person’s developmental stage and cultural background
  • Giving the young person opportunities to ask questions and maybe show them some useful information or websites that they can explore in their own time

Taking about trauma with a young person is likely to make them quite aroused or dissociative, meaning that their ability to take the information in will be compromised.  Checking in is important.  “Does that make sense?  Sometimes I get confused by what I say, can you let me know what you heard?” This allows you to not only see if they have heard and understood you but also gives you a chance to check where they are at within their arousal state, allowing you to respond appropriately.

Further Resources