What is Trauma-Focused Therapy?

What is Therapy?

Therapy provides a safe and confidential place for a person to talk to a professional about personal experiences, thoughts, feelings, or problems. People who go to  therapy may have experienced a situation that that disrupts and/or impacts his or her thinking, mood, feelings, or ability to relate to others. A person may also seek out therapy because they want a neutral and safe place to talk about general life experiences. Many people seek out therapy: adults, youth, teens, even therapists themselves. Everyone needs somewhere they feel safe and supported.

The role of the therapist is to help the person understand his/her situation, teach strategies to express him/herself, and cope with potentially stressful situations. The therapist can also offer the individual or family tools to help them manage difficult feelings, and/or negative thoughts and behaviors.

What is Trauma-Focused Therapy?

Trauma-Focused Therapy is a specific approach to therapy that recognizes and emphasizes understanding how the traumatic experience impacts a child’s mental, behavioral, emotional, physical, and spiritual well-being. This type of therapy is rooted in understanding the connection between the trauma experience and the child’s emotional and behavioral responses. The purpose of trauma-focused therapy is to offer skills and strategies to assist your child in better understanding, coping with,  processing emotions and memories tied to traumatic experiences, with the end goal of enabling your child to create a healthier and more adaptive meaning of the experience that took place in his/her life.

SAMHSA’s Definition of a Trauma-Focused Therapy

“A program, organization, or system that is trauma-informed:

  1. Realizes the widespread impact of trauma and understands potential paths for recovery
  2. Recognizes 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-traumatization.”

For more information, click HERE.

Benefits of Trauma-Focused Therapy

Trauma-Focused Therapy can be beneficial to youth who have experienced a traumatic event . By engaging in trauma-focused treatment, your child can learn more about what he/she is experiencing,how to address the concerns, and develop healthier ways of coping. The following are a few examples of the benefits of trauma-focused therapy:

Learn About Trauma.

Trauma-focused therapy provides a space for children and their families to learn about normal responses to trauma and specifically how a traumatic event has impacted the child and family. This type of discovery and learning helps you and your child to digest why certain thoughts, feelings, and behaviors might occur, gives names and explanations to his/her experiences, and  reminds your child that he/she is not alone in his/her experience.

Re-Establish Safety.

A traumatic experience by definition results in a violation of your child’s sense of safety. This includes violations of  physical, emotional y, psychological, and/or relational safety.. A benefit of trauma-focused therapy is to assist your child in re-developing internal (emotional, psychological, relational) and physical (touch, the environment) senses of safety, through activities and discussions that target these domains.

Identify Triggers.

Participating in trauma-focused therapy can help your child learn to identify, understand, explore, and express memories and feelings related to the trauma. Often times, children may show reactions that appear to “come out of nowhere” or are out of proportion for an experience, but it may be that these are actually reactions to trauma reminders. Another benefit oftreatment is that your child can learn to recognize what experiences or feelings may be associated with traumatic reminders (also known as triggers) and work to be able to more appropriately adapt his/her response over time.

Develop Healthy Coping Skills.

Trauma-focused therapy sessions aim to help youth discover skills and improve coping strategies to better respond to reminders and emotions associated with the traumatic event. Some of these skills include anxiety management and relaxation strategies that are taught in youth friendly ways. Developing these types of skills in response to trauma supports resiliency or  assists your child in “bouncing back” from his/her traumatic experience.

Decrease in Traumatic Stress Symptoms.

Engaging in trauma-focused therapy and working closely with the therapist can help your child develop and practice skills that help decrease traumatic stress symptoms and other mental health symptoms associated with the trauma. Your child may experience decreases in depression, anxiety, dissociation, trauma-related shame or guilt, and/or intrusive symptoms such as flashbacks and nightmares.

Practice Trauma Processing or Integration.

One goal of a trauma-informed therapy is to help the child regain power and control over past experiences by sensitively assisting the child to re-narrate his/her story. Over time your child has the opportunity to “process”  or organize these unique experiences into his/her everyday life and ,make meaning of the event(s) and how they relate to your child’s view of him/herself and the world around.

Trauma-Focused Treatment Activities

There are a large variety of different activities or strategies that used within the trauma-focused treatment process. These trauma-focused activities may look different based on age, trauma experience, setting, or location. Therapists may use creative strategies and activities to address memories, emotions, or problematic behaviors associated with traumatic experiences as part of the therapy process. These are conducted in a way that is sensitive and unique to your child’s experience and are often used in conjunction with relaxation skills.

Types of Trauma-Focused Treatments

Many different types of trauma-focused and trauma-informed treatments exist today. These may also be referred to as  trauma-focused interventions. One intervention type is not “better” than another, but rather each was developed to meet the different needs of individuals and families. Trauma-focused treatments may look different based on age, trauma experience, setting, or location.

To find specific trauma-informed interventions based on your child’s needs, visit the National Child Traumatic Stress Network Empirically Supported Treatments and Promising Practices by clicking HERE.

How Do I Know if a Therapist is Trauma-Informed?

Currently there are no state or national regulations defining “trauma-informed provider” or “trauma-informed therapist.” However, some states are working toward “credentialing” or ensuring that clinicians have minimum education and training around trauma-informed practice. No matter where you live or what a professional’s background may be, there are questions you can ask a therapist to learn more about his/her training and experience working with children exposed to trauma. Some questions you may consider asking include:

  • What is your educational background (degree, professional title)?
  • What are your specialties?
  • How long have you been conducting therapy?
  • What is your experience in working with youth who have experienced trauma?
  • What is your approach to working with youth who have experienced trauma?
  • Have you had any type of specialty training in the treatment of childhood trauma?
  • Do you consider yourself a “trauma-informed therapist”? How?

For more tips on choosing a trauma-informed provider, visit SAMHSA’s Trauma-Informed Approach and Trauma Specific Interventions webpage or visit NCTSN’s Empirically Supported Treatments and Promising Practices webpage.

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