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There are different levels of disclosure of traumatic experiences. Letting someone know that a traumatic experience happened is not the same as discussing this experience in detail. Whilst it may be important for a young person to let you now they have had a traumatic experience, it is not necessary for them to go into detail about what happened in order for you to understand them.
Your role is in helping young people make an informed decision about when, why and how to share their experience of trauma by providing some safe boundaries for disclosure.
“I’m aware that telling someone about a difficult or traumatic experience in detail can be pretty unsettling."
"You are in control of what we talk about now."
"It might feel like it’s enough to let me know the type of experience you had without going into detail.”
OPENING UP PANDORAS BOX!
Many people have concerns that they are going to ‘open Pandora’s box’ if they ask about trauma and then don’t have the skills, resources or time, or be in the right setting, to properly support the young person. It is safe to support a young person to open up about the traumatic experiences but it is just as important to know how to contain this. Babette Rothschild, a well-known specialist in trauma and trauma treatment, talks about this as never teaching a young person to “hit the accelerator” before knowing that they are able to “find the brakes”.
Talking about a traumatic experience can also be positive where the young person feels heard and understood and sometimes by sharing it with a supportive person in a safe environment can help a young person feel in more control over a past event. What is important to remember though is to manage the disclosure safely - ‘do no harm’. Babette Rothschild highlights the need to watch for physical signs of distress such as a young person turning pale, breathing in fast, panting breaths, dilated pupils, shivers or feels cold. These all indicate that the body is in a state of stress and means you would need to help them ‘put on the brakes’, practice some grounding techniques for instance before continuing.
Developing "trauma brakes" makes it possible for clients, often for the first time, to have control over their traumatic memories, rather than feeling controlled by them.
Here are some things to consider when a young person wants to disclose about trauma.
- What is the young person’s desire to disclose trauma? To what level of detail do they want to do this?
- How stable is the young person psychologically and socially? What strategies do they use to manage when they are distressed?
- How safe is the environment? What supports do they have? Where are they going when they leave you?
- What is the context of the conversation? How much time do you have now? Are you able to follow up with them in the future?
- What is your experience with trauma conversations? Do you feel equipped and supported to help the young person understand and manage this disclosure?
- What capacity does the agency you work for or that which supports you have to support your work with trauma? What links do they have to trauma specialists?
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. Your role will often be as a witness, but a compassionate one that gives the young person permission to express what they need but also contains them when appropriate. It is important that both you and the young person are aware of your limits and requirements from the agency that supports you.
Always follow the guidelines of the agency that supports you regarding managing disclosures.
Other meanings disclosure may have for young people:
Disclosing trauma to another person can feel like handing over control and power to someone else. These are things a young person has often lost at an early age and have continued to lose throughout experiences within out-of-home care. Therefore it can be very difficult and disabling for a young person during these discussions.
For some young people the trauma they have experienced has “broken them” and they can see that telling someone else about this experience will “damage that person too”. This idea of the young person that their trauma is contagious when they talk about it can impact on their relationship with carers and others.