What does trauma informed practice look like in action with kids?

by | Jul 27, 2021 | Blog

6 practical things child protection caseworkers can do to reduce the impact of trauma when working with children and young people

One new worker asked me this important question. “I understand the principles of trauma informed practice (safety, trust, empowerment, choice, collaboration) but what can I actually do to be trauma informed? What can I do or say intentionally to help kids heal from trauma?” What great practice questions!

I was writing some curriculum on working with children and young people at the time and thought this is something that needs to be included in that piece of work. So, I set about to draw on the wisdom of some of my colleagues that specialize in trauma work.

Whilst therapy is very important, some kids won’t or can’t engage in therapy for many reasons. Sometimes it can just be about readiness or timing. So, what else can we do before or as well as therapy?

Here are six practical things we can do to address trauma and help kids heal:

1. Make sure we have robust safety plans and planning around the child/young person. ‘Kids need to see safe before they can feel safe’. Think of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Good old Maslow got it right a long time ago. We can’t evolve as humans if we are not safe or don’t feel safe. Safety planning and developing robust safety plans with families is the key to helping kids feel safe so that they can heal from past trauma and harm.

2. Tell kids what is going on! Everyone, including kids, want information in times of uncertainty or stress! Of course, using age appropriate language and using your professional judgement about details and what to include or not. Come up with an age appropriate explanation to tell them why child protection services are intervening into their life, why Dad or Mum is not in the home at present, or why routines have changed, why others are coming into their house, or why they have been placed in out of home care etcetera. Kids need to know about any significant change, where, when and how they will have contact, safety plans and so on. Sometimes in the business of working with the parents and carers we forget this.

The reason for doing this is that because if we don’t tell kids what is going on they will make it up in their own mind and often assign blame to themselves. One little guy said to me “If I promise to be good can Daddy come home?”. No one had told him why he and Mum had moved out of the family home and he thought it was because he had been naughty, not because Dad had chosen to use violence in the relationship with his mother! This is something as simple as having a conversation with the child or young person.

Another way to have these conversations is to use a process tool like The Immediate Story, developed by Sonja Parker. It is a simple four step process to guide workers to have this conversation with kids. Visual and verbal ……The other useful thing about using the Immediate Story tool is that you can leave it with the child and they can refer back to when they feel worried or anxious. When I was working with that little guy above, we made and Immediate Story booklet for him and his mum said he would ask her to read it to him every night before bed. It settled him when he was anxious. You can learn more about the Immediate Story and find an easy to use template at www.partneringforsafety.com

3. Do some simple psycho-education with the child or young person to help them understand that their strong emotions and reactions at present are normal reactions to a crazy situation. Normalize their feelings. Not every child has child protection services involved in their lives, not every child has been placed in out of home care or been harmed by their family. Kids experience understandable emotional responses and lots of grief and loss in these unusual circumstances.

4. Give kids permission to talk about the past if they want to. Much abuse is very covert and children and young people have been told not to talk to anyone about what is going on in the home or what has happened to them. Simply giving them permission and saying its ok to talk about it when they are ready and feel safe to do so is important. It’s not about getting disclosures or forcing kids to talk about what happened, it is simply giving them permission to talk about it.

5. Maintain regular and safe contact with the birth family however that may look. Even though the parents have harmed the children, they are still their family of origin and often love them despite that harmful behavior, thus desiring some sort of safe contact and connection. Don’t forget that families are bigger than just mum and dad. Who else in the family network can we have safe and positive connections with at this time if it is not possible to do so with mum and dad? Grandparents, aunts and uncles often get forgotten by the simple fact we are so busy!

A great little resource to help your thinking about how safe quality connections can be maintained is Denise Goodman’s Bridging the Gap – a one-page diagram conceptualizing practical ideas for contact on a continuum. Google it!

6. Last but not least, when possible work with the parents (and/or extended family) to develop a Trauma Healing Story which is a message from the parent to the child or young person to explain what happened and it is a form of sorry (Note: the Immediate Story is a message from the caseworker to the child and the Trauma Healing Story is a message from the parents to the child).

Workers can support parents to write down or even do a brief video on their phone to explain in an age appropriate way what happened that led to them to hurting their child and that they love them. Of course, developing a THS with the parents is dependent on their readiness and willingness, and it is up to us to support parents to do this when timely. This is the work of trauma specialist Arianne Struik who developed the Sleeping Dogs method. For further information go to her website and you will find numerous articles online about her work around the world. www.ariannestruik.com

Of course, if parents and kids are working with therapists or counsellors, involve and consult them in any important trauma healing activities . Don’t assume that anyone else is doing these practical trauma healing tasks. It’s up to YOU to facilitate and make sure these simple, yet powerful, things are done.

You may not need to or be able to do all six practical strategies, however they are six things to put in your practice toolbox and draw upon when needed that can make a significant difference to the impact of past trauma for kids involved in the child protection system.

Let me know if they are useful!