What Does it Mean to be Trauma-informed and Trauma-responsive?

Knowing that trauma exists and that an individual may have encountered adverse childhood experiences, does not necessarily mean that the professional (e.g., nurse, teacher, counselor) or the organization (e.g., hospital, school) is trauma responsive. Some key indicators of being trauma-responsive include:

  • Moving beyond incidents to addressing underlying social issues.
  • Understanding behaviors, providing context, providing an explanation without excusing harm or diminishing responsibility to create “accountability within a context of support”; and
  • Committing to do no further harm.

Key Definitions

Adverse Childhood Experiences are stressful or traumatic events that occur prior to turning 18 years old. They have been linked to risky health behavior, chronic health conditions, low life potential, and early death (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2018).  According to Child Trends (2019), “ACEs is a subset of childhood adversities.”

Childhood Adversity (Child Trends, 2019) a broad term that refers to a wide range of circumstances or events that pose a serious threat to a child’s physical or psychological well-being…the effects if childhood adversity can become biologically embedded during sensitive periods of development and lead to lifelong physical and mental health problems. However, adversity does not predestine children to poor outcomes, and most children are able to recover when they have the right supports-particularly the consistent presence of a warm, sensitive caregiver.

Resiliency “Children cannot make themselves resilient – resilience is nurtured through relationships and exposures to experiences and resources that promote it” (Hewel-Garris, N., Davis, M., Szilagi, M. & Kan, K. p.8). Stewards of Children Training:  Childhood adversity and parent perceptions of child resilience.

Toxic Stress is the “strong, frequent, or prolonged activation of the body’s stress response systems in the absence of the buffering protection of a supportive, adult relationship” (Shonkoff et al, 2012). It can lead to functional changes in several regions of the brain involved in learning and behavior including the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex (Johnson, Riis, & Noble, 2016).

Trauma is the severe and prolonged distress response that originates from the exposure to adverse childhood experiences and toxic stress. The distress response can manifest physically, mentally, emotionally, and/or behaviorally across the lifespan of an individual.

Types of Trauma (Crisis and Trauma Resource Institute, 2018)

There are three general types of trauma that affect children:

  • Intergenerational Trauma: histories of victimization; abuse and/or neglect;
  • Individual Trauma: impact of family violence, neglect, sexual abuse, other physical and emotional abuse; and
  • Collective Trauma: poverty and growing inequality; male/patriarchal violence – the root cause of most family violence and sexual abuse; colonialism and impact on indigenous peoples – “settler colonialism” has caused intergenerational traumas