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Becoming a trauma-informed youth program

By Kyra Paitrick

"Sam" is an American Indian youth in one of the 4-H clubs that I help lead. He doesn't participate in every meeting, but has stayed involved for two years. Sam is a natural leader. He has great ideas and has helped the club plan and carry out a meaningful service project.

Sometimes, Sam comes in agitated and rambunctious, talking over others and derailing the meeting. Sam lives with his grandmother and younger sister. He has occasionally blurted out that his mother is in treatment and his dad died a couple years ago. Clearly, Sam is dealing with trauma. He is trying to cope with the loss of his father and separation from his mother.

As I develop programming for American Indian youth in and around the tribal community, I know many of the youth experience Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). ACEs can affect young people even into adulthood. Examples of ACES are abuse, neglect, exposure to violence, separation or divorce and drug or alcohol use.

To help youth to learn and grow into positive leaders, we need to become trauma-informed. We need to help these youth learn and practice skills to cope with their trauma.

Trauma-informed practices for youth workers

Teach youth healthy ways of working through the effects of their trauma. When youth are triggered, don't ignore it or assume they will learn coping skills elsewhere. Help them to find a healthy sense of control by expressing their ideas and helping to plan activities.

Respect youth and family readiness and willingness to deal with trauma. Begin by planning activities that teach all youth skills for coping with trauma -- rather than targeting one individual.

Activities should go beyond communication and cognition. Purely cognitive behavioral interventions can be limiting and in some cases more traumatizing because traumatized children are driven by the sensory memories of their experiences, not just reason and logic. Plan activities that allow them to physically release tension. Engaging youth in service to others is another activity that will help them gain perspective of their own trauma and potentially heal by helping others.

Understand each young person’s emotional triggers and that everyone reacts to trauma in their own way based on their unique perspectives, concerns and culture. Our approach to helping each young person should be considerate of their unique experiences, culture, personality and abilities.

Minimize stress on youth with trauma by ensuring a physically and emotionally safe environment. Consistent routines in your program help create a stable, predictable space.

Ask youth "What has happened to you?" rather than "What is wrong with you?" when they seem triggered or reactive. Replace the perception of judgement with the perception of someone trying to seek understanding.

I've changed my practices in the 4-H club to help Sam. I am careful about doing activities specifically for parents as that may be a trigger for him. I discern whether his disruption is a behavior or a reaction to a trigger. When Sam is triggered, I give him some space to process what he is feeling.

Young people like Sam make learning about trauma a priority. I have engaged colleagues in discussion about addressing trauma and requested it become part of our program plan and professional development. Do you work to become trauma-informed? What information could you share about trauma-informed programming?

-- Kyra Paitrick, former 4-H community program coordinator
American Indian youth programs

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  1. Thanks for this timely post Kyra! I attended a training last spring on ACES and being trauma informed. It was very enlightening! I highly recommend the TED Talk by Dr. Nadine Burke Harris: How childhood trauma affects health across a lifetime. I believe building our understanding of this topic is so critical for our staff as well as key volunteers. Thanks for sharing your story and strategies to help us all learn!

    1. Ann,
      Thank you for the feedback. I attended ACEs training last year and have found that I see much of the effects of ACEs in myself, my family, and my community. I think it is important to understand ACEs and not view the trauma and it's potential effects as a health sentence. Rather, we can know the effects people experience may derive from the trauma and we can be better prepared, finding ways to build resiliency and learn how to heal and cope by building systems of support. Thanks also for sharing the resource. I will be sure to watch the TED talk.

  2. This subject is a deeply personal one for me, Kyra. One of our family's dearest friends is a boy who has survived early childhood trauma. He is kind, smart and so much fun to be around. We love him and love that he's part of our life. But this boys's traumatic early years will always be a part of him. His anxiety often results in behaviors that are hard to love.

    Although he is just five years old, we're already seeing a tendency in youth workers to exclude him rather than adapt their practices to be trauma-informed. It's both heart-breaking and maddening.

    Rules and policies in youth-serving organizations require nuance and flexibility. And we as individual youth workers must choose to build our skills, expand our understanding of how trauma impacts youth. If we don't make changes to ourselves and our systems, youth who are most in need of positive development will never be able to access it.

    Thanks for opening this conversation, Kyra. I appreciate your leadership.

    1. Erin,

      Thank you for sharing your direct relationship with this topic. I feel for the boy you talk about and hope that he gets the support and care he needs so that he can learn to cope with the trauma he has experienced. I completely agree that youth workers need to adapt their practices and make the choice to understand trauma and build their skills to work with youth and families who live with trauma. The organizations, too, should evaluate their policies and practices to better accommodate youth who come with higher needs. I hope the conversation continues so we can learn from each other and share resources.

  3. Thank you for sharing this, Kyra. Becoming more trauma-informed has been an important journey for me both professionally and personally in the past couple of years. I have discovered that it has it helped me to reshape the way I approach behavior management, especially by incorporating opportunities for movement and for youth to physically discharge their energy when they are triggered. Whereas I might have asked to sit and talk with a youth before, now I will often ask them to walk with me as we talk, and I am more often teaching breathing techniques to youth as a way of equipping them with their own tools to deal with triggers. I am so glad you are raising this as a professional development need for all of us in the youth development field.

    1. Kathryn,

      Thank you so much for sharing how you have applied some of the practices I mentioned in my post about allowing youth to physically release some of their negative energy. I appreciate the example of walking and talking rather than having a more formal sit-down conversation. These slight adaptations to the way we manage behavior can make such a difference in building relationships and trust with youth, as well as preserving their dignity by being more gracious with them when they are triggered.


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