A trauma informed response for working with young people affected by domestic abuse

Jo Sharpen is the Policy Manager at Against Violence and Abuse (AVA). In this blog she explains how the effects of trauma can manifest in young people affected by domestic abuse, and how practitioners and services can understand and prevent re-traumatisation of young people. For an audio version of this blog, scroll to the bottom of the page.

‘Individual trauma results from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being’

Domestic abuse certainly fits these criteria and can be exacerbated by the fact that the trauma is perpetrated by someone close to the victim and by the unpredictable nature of abuse. There are many common responses to trauma such as hyper-arousal, numbing, increased startle response, flashbacks, avoidance, sleep problems, anxiety, memory and attention problems, developmental delays and attachment issues to name a few. These are all normal responses to abnormal situations, but on the surface may manifest as behaviour that may seem irrational, illogical or even risky. A concern then is that such behaviours could potentially be misdiagnosed as a child being defiant, oppositional or as having ADHD.

Young people who have experienced abuse are making complex, daily decisions about risk and safety. Due to the trauma response, they may be living mainly in the ‘survival’ part of the brain, constantly hyper-vigilant and scanning for threats and danger. This may come at the expense of higher reasoning, problem solving and logical reasoning. Sometimes this alarm response can still happen, even when the person is in a safe place. The brain stores memories of trauma that may be triggered by sounds, smells etc. and can result in an automatic, unconscious response.

We need to understand these responses so we can better support young people. Services often prioritise one issue whereas young people need a trauma informed approach which understands they may be experiencing multiple disadvantages . Young people also need to understand that their responses are normal, as it can be very frightening and confusing especially if they can’t make the links between their behaviour and their experiences.

If we do not respond appropriately, we risk re-traumatising someone. For instance, excluding a teenage from school for ‘misbehaving’ can remind them of abuse or rejection. Similarly, closing a case when someone does not engage or show up to appointments does not allow for the fact that simply leaving the house can be difficult when experiencing abuse or recovering from trauma.

A trauma informed response focuses not on what is ‘wrong’ with someone, but rather what they have experienced.

For instance, instead of thinking a young person is disruptive or not engaging, we understand that they have been triggered; instead of thinking that a young person needs ‘consequences’ or anger management, we understand they need routine, support and self-worth.

SAMHSA’s ‘four R’ model is a helpful reminder:

A program, organisation, or system that is trauma-informed:

  1. Realises the widespread impact of trauma and understands potential paths for recovery;
  2. Recognises the signs and symptoms of trauma in clients, families, staff, and others involved with the system;
  3. Responds by fully integrating knowledge about trauma into policies, procedures, and practices; and
  4. Seeks to actively resist re-traumatisation.”

What we must always remember is that the impacts of trauma are preventable and reversible. With understanding, training and support we can ensure we are providing a more appropriate and therapeutic response that will impact on the long term wellbeing of young people affected by domestic abuse.

A trauma informed response for working with young people affected by domestic abuse

You may be interested in