Trauma-Informed Practices Mean Changing Our Mind

Portrait of angry young African-American teenage girl, Isolated on white background.
Vladimir Badaev/SHUTTERSTOCK

We’ve all been there: long day, long week, long month. And a youth in our program brings some challenging behavior to our doorstep. Maybe he’s talking nonstop and never listens. Maybe she’s angry and challenging everything you say. Maybe he’s impulsive and constantly pulling you away from the rest of the group. It’s frustrating.

I understand because I’ve been there, too. I wonder if I might be able to offer some help to you and the youth you serve? Let’s take a look at some trauma-informed interventions that might help us gain clarity.

Developing a trauma-informed practice begins with us. We examine our own thoughts, biases, perceptions and beliefs. That means we need to look at the experiences that shaped our beliefs. I often say that successful youth development work is rooted in three key principles: do your own work, own your baggage and know your privilege.

trauma-informed: Kirk Lowis (headshot), director of youth programs at Portage Community Center, serious-looking man in blue with long red hair.

Kirk Lowis

We’ll also want to understand more about trauma-informed practices. These practices are a helpful foundation for youth development work. When we look closely at the research, we understand why. The Kaiser ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) Study shows us the stunning prevalence of what could potentially be experienced as traumatic childhood events. It also demonstrates the devastating potential these ACEs can have on long-term outcomes.

It’s helpful to know that, in order to engage in trauma-informed practices, we don’t have to be clinicians and we don’t have to be experts in trauma. We simply need to understand what the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration refers to as the “Four Rs.” According to SAMHSA, a trauma-informed organization:

  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 retraumatization.

Listen, change our language

Our discussion is primarily focused on Nos. 3 and 4. A good place to start when a youth presents us with challenging behavior is to listen to our internal dialogue. These are the things we tell ourselves and they shape our beliefs which, in turn, shape our actions. We all do it. In fact, the things we say and do to the youth will ultimately become part of their internal voice and how they view themselves.

It’s often helpful to begin by changing our own language about “bad” behavior and youth. I use quotes around the word “bad” when using it to describe youth behavior because I find it’s less useful to label behavior as “good” or “bad.” I prefer to use the phrase “challenging behavior” instead.

It helps me to remember that the behavior presents a challenge. If I’m being challenged by a youth’s dysfunctional behavior that means he is also being challenged. That’s a valuable mindset shift: We have a shared problem and we both have a shared interest in a solution, whether we’re aware of it or not.

In trauma-informed practices, we are taught to change the question about working with challenging youth behavior from “What’s wrong with you?” to “What happened to you?” In other words, we shift the focus from blame to understanding. I take this a step further. You don’t really need an answer to the latter question. You don’t have to know the details of the trauma in order to help. It’s the asking of the question that helps us. I suggest developing an inquisitive mindset and follow up “What happened to you?” with “I wonder what might you need?”

We begin to see how important this question is if we remember that behind every behavior is a need. Uncovering the need allows us to create a shared solution to the challenging behavior. There are many models to help us frame the question “What is the underlying need?” Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a time-honored model. The Circle of Courage is another useful model.

These types of models help both the youth and us. They help us by providing context and humanizing the youth behind the challenging behaviors. It’s easier to humanize a person if we shift from viewing them as a set of problematic behaviors to a human being with needs that they are trying to meet however they can.

When we ask the question about underlying needs, it encourages us to think in a trauma-informed way: “I wonder if she is stealing food from our program because she’s hungry and not getting enough to eat at home?” “I wonder if the young man who has joined a gang has an unmet need for belonging or perhaps safety?” “I wonder if she is resisting the rules because it feels to her like I’m trying to control her the way her abuser did?” From there we can start to problem-solve and try solutions to help the youth learn to meet their needs in more functional and healthier ways.

Check your adultism

Another helpful practice is to assess our own intervention assumptions before we act. We start with triage: assessing risk or danger. Obviously, in cases where someone is at risk for harm then we might need a direct intervention to stop the behavior promptly. However, we often treat all challenging behaviors with the same urgency and that doesn’t serve anyone well. If there isn’t immediate danger, consider the following before you act:

Do you just want the behavior to stop? Do you want to control the youth’s behavior?

Or do you want the youth to gain self-mastery?

In cases where there is no imminent danger, it’s usually helpful to choose the latter option for several reasons. First, an adult dictating and controlling their behavior can be potentially retraumatizing. For the youth it can feel upsettingly similar to their perpetrator, who controlled their body or mind through physical, sexual or emotional abuse and manipulation. This will not create a positive result for either of you.

Second, our ultimate goal with all youth is that some day they’ll be able to make wise choices and self-regulate on their own. If we begin to understand the underlying needs of the youth then we can help guide them toward practicing healthier choices to meet those needs. We can only reach this goal by giving up some of our adultism, power and control, and by letting the youth practice within the safety of our programs.

Mindsets are powerful things. We often allow ourselves to simply repeat what we know and what we’ve been taught, both helpful and unhelpful, throughout our lives. We believe the reality we’re given as children. This can lead us to repeating ideas and interventions that adults used on us without ever questioning whether they serve youth well or they just get the job done at any cost.

By changing our mindset we can begin to ask the right questions. Instead of just focusing on our experience alone, we begin to develop a partnership and a better understanding of the youth we serve. That understanding can help chart a pathway to freedom for both us and the youth.

Kirk Lowis, M.A., CTP-E, is the director of youth programs at Portage Community Center and has worked in youth development for nearly 30 years. He’s a popular speaker with the Michigan Afterschool Association and at agencies around the state and nationally in the areas of social-emotional learning and trauma-informed practices.


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