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Trauma-Informed and Responsive Guiding Principles

The Childhood Trauma Task Force (CTTF) has developed five Guiding Principles to help organizations become Trauma-Informed and Responsive.

How an organization applies each Guiding Principle will vary depending on the role, responsibilities and purpose of that organization, as well as the age range and circumstances of the children the organization serves.

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It’s vital for Trauma-Informed and Responsive organizations to ensure a child’s physical, social and emotional safety, which are deeply intertwined.

Ensuring a child’s physical safety means making sure that any spaces where children may be are designed to prevent physical injury and free of dangerous items (e.g. firearms, drugs). It also means ensuring that children are protected from physical or sexual abuse.

Ensuring a child’s social and emotional safety can include:

  • Providing a nurturing environment that helps establish a sense of safety, while avoiding the triggering of a possible traumatic response.
  • Supporting connections to loving, consistent caregivers.
  • Fostering predictability for children and their caregivers whenever possible.
  • Empowering children to be their authentic selves and allowing children to express their ideas, thoughts, beliefs, needs, identities, self-concepts and emotions without fear of ridicule, shame or dismissal.
  • Validating children’s feelings and responding to their expressed needs without judgement or criticism.
  • Taking a culturally affirming approach, which includes celebrating the child’s culture as a potential source of strength and support, and validating any experiences of overt and covert discrimination based on culture.
  • Modeling and encouraging children to build healthy relationships and be empathetic towards others.
  • Taking action to prevent bullying, coercion, gender policing, sexual harassment, sexual exploitation and other abuses of power.
  • Examining the role that historical and racial trauma may play in the child’s life and their ability to feel safe in their environment.
  • Working to reduce trauma triggers/trauma reminders in their environment.

Safety is important for staff, as well, as some may be living with their own unaddressed trauma, which may inhibit their ability to respond appropriately to the children in their care.

Things to consider in ensuring staff safety can include:

  • Ensuring the staff work environment is designed to prevent physical injury and is properly maintained.
  • Developing appropriate safety protocols for staff whose work takes place in the community or in other people’s homes.
  • Maintaining safe staffing levels.
  • Teaching staff procedures/techniques designed to protect their physical, emotional and social safety as appropriate for the work environment.
  • Demonstrating an awareness of how listening to the trauma experiences of others can have an impact on work satisfaction, relationships and performance by regularly checking in with staff and offering support, especially after a potentially traumatic event.
  • Creating a culture of encouraging self-care within the organization, providing opportunities for self-care for staff, and ensuring staff have sufficient training in recognizing and addressing trauma in their own lives.
  • Including staff from all levels of the organization and key stakeholders in the development of policies and procedures that impact them.
  • Providing supportive staff supervision, including providing staff the opportunity to openly discuss experiences, challenges and concerns.
  • Effectively addressing instances of workplace harassment or bullying.
  • Providing staff with livable wages that provide economic stability and security.
Bipolar Disorder In Children Concept. Little african american girl and her parents at reception of psychologist, kid sharing her feelings with doctor

Building and maintaining trust with children, youth and their families is an important foundation for a healthy relationship, requiring active effort from staff and organizations.

It’s important to note that entire communities, such as Black, Hispanic/Latinx, Asian, Native American, LGBTQ+, people living with disabilities and immigrant/refugee communities, have historically been and may continue to be subjected to abuse, harm and exploitation by powerful institutions and individuals.

An effective tool in building trust is transparency. Ways of building trust and promoting transparency can include:

  • Engaging in open, clear and collaborative conversations with children and their families, especially regarding decisions that directly impact the child.
  • Involving children and their families in conversations regarding information sharing, including:
    • Explaining the legal and practical implications of information-sharing and disclosures.
    • Being transparent and open about what information must be shared, and with whom, by law and/or policy.
    • Giving children and their families the opportunity to specify what information should remain confidential and what can be shared, within legal and policy boundaries.
  • Providing information in a timely and developmentally appropriate manner and in the method (e.g. letter, text, email, voicemail, video message) and language chosen by the child/family, when possible.
  • Being honest and realistic with children/families about challenges and barriers (e.g. waiting lists for services, legal limitations) and taking care not to make promises that cannot be kept.
  • Admitting to children/families when a mistake has been made and making efforts to repair any harm caused.
  • Providing youth/families with multiple opportunities to communicate with senior management if they do not feel heard by staff, without fear of reprisal.
  • Connecting children/families with interpreters (as needed), family partners and/or peer support, and involving these individuals in conversations when possible to promote open and clear communication.
  • Hiring staff from backgrounds that reflect the diversity of families served, including staff who have the lived experience to act as liaisons between families and care providers.
  • Ensuring that all staff who have contact with families are adequately trained to create a respectful and welcoming environment.
  • Using positive language that promotes healing for children and families, while emphasizing the strengths they already in place. When interacting with pre- or non-verbal children, TIR adults can communicate this through their tone of voice, body language, positive physical contact and play.
  • Maintaining consistency throughout the relationship with the youth and their family to the extent possible (e.g. avoiding missed appointments, following through).
  • Following the other Guiding Principles will also help organizations build trust.
Diverse group of elementary age little boys and little girls are sitting in a circle in school library or therapist's office. Students are attending group therapy or counseling session. Mid adult African American man is counselor or therapist. He is pointing to child whose hand is raised to ask a question.

Children who have experienced trauma are not just victims. They have strengths, capabilities and talents that should be nurtured throughout their lives and that can help support recovery and healing.

They may feel a loss of control and that they’re powerless to do anything to change their situation. Adults who interact with children should work with them and their caregivers to empower them to make decisions about their own lives.

Ways of empowering children and their caregivers can include:

  • Using a strengths-based, resiliency-focused perspective and choosing language that’s culturally sensitive and recognizes that there is much more to a child than their circumstances or the trauma they have experienced.
  • Including children and their caregivers in decision-making processes (e.g. giving them choices, helping them set goals).
  • Developing input and feedback mechanisms for children, families and communities.
  • Recognizing that youth and families may bring different yet equally valid values and perspectives to a decision, some of which may be rooted in differences in background, upbringing, experiences or culture.
  • Recognizing that a family’s culture can be a source of strength and support as they heal from trauma.
  • Learning to differentiate between decisions that are actively harmful and those that are simply not the ones a staff member would make for themselves.
  • Connecting children and families with interpreters, family partners and peer support.
  • Creating space for youth and families to have a role in organizational decision-making.
  • Supporting youth and families in advocating for themselves.

In situations where a youth has caused harm, adults can also empower them by adopting a restorative approach rather than responding in a punitive manner. Restorative responses seek to repair and improve relationships and, as such, empower youth to become a part of the solution.

TIR organizations should also engage children and families in providing feedback throughout the process of developing, implementing and evaluating policies and programming.

A multi-ethnic group of elementary school students pose for a group photo together outside of school. They are posing in front of trees and enjoying each others company.

TIR organizations recognize that a variety of systemic inequities can cause and reinforce trauma. For example, individuals may experience trauma as a result of systemic discrimination based on race, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, national origin, religion, socioeconomic status, weight/obesity, age or disability. This can be a result of directly or indirectly experiencing these kinds of discrimination.

Life circumstances associated with poverty and economic stress can also be traumatic, including economic and housing insecurity.

In addition to trauma experienced on an individual level, entire groups of people can experience trauma and pass the effects down through multiple generations. This is referred to as intergenerational trauma.

Also, overt and covert experiences of discrimination based on race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation, as well as experiencing economic disadvantage, are associated with showing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Adults and organizations should also actively resist re-traumatizing children and families by addressing discrimination, promoting equity and practicing cultural affirmation by:

  • Listening and learning from children and families as well as community cultural brokers about their experiences of discrimination, as well as the specific values, resources and strengths they derive from their cultural background and self-identification.
  • Acknowledging our own personal and implicit biases, privilege and power.
  • Being aware of how these biases and positions of power/privilege may influence interactions with children and families.
  • Working to undo personal and implicit biases and taking corrective action to minimize the impact they have on decisions that affect children and families.
  • Creating opportunities for staff members to educate themselves about issues of race, gender, class, sexual orientation, and other cultural factors, as well the impact of privilege and power.
  • Creating safe spaces for staff members to engage in open, honest dialogues about these issues, grounding discussions in established shared norms for courageous conversations.
  • Taking concrete actions to address systemic discrimination within organizations and systems, such as identifying and reviewing policies that may systematically impact individuals based on demographic characteristics.
  • Supporting policies and structures that promote the eradication of racism, poverty and unequal distribution of resources among communities.
A group of kids in a tug-of-war game

TIR organizations place a high priority on modeling healthy relationship behaviors and, when possible, developing caring mentoring relationships, while helping children build healthy relationships with their peers and family members.

Examples of ways to have Trauma-Informed and Responsive short-term interactions with children include:

  • Respect: Introduce yourself, explain your role, share which pronouns you use and provide clear information about what to expect regarding any process they are going through.
  • Effective Communication: Practice active listening, ask questions in a curious, non-judgmental manner, provide information in a developmentally appropriate manner in the child’s preferred language, and be mindful of your tone, body language and nonverbal cues.
  • Validation & Compassion: Recognize that children’s feelings are valid, demonstrate compassion and patience and provide positive reinforcement of behaviors that demonstrate resiliency.
  • Control & Choice: Let children and families know they have control and choices in the matters that pertain to them.

Other Trauma-Informed and Responsive adults will have ongoing relationships with the child and their family that could last throughout their lives. These TIR adults can build and promote healthy relationships by:

  • Paying close attention to what children and families say and asking intentional questions to get to know them and understand their perspectives better.
  • Talking with children and families about trauma and potential reactions to it.
  • Explaining to children and families that their thoughts, feelings and behaviors are normal responses to traumatic situations and may actually have been helpful or critical to surviving difficult circumstances.
  • Teaching and modeling healthy ways of recognizing and expressing feelings and coping with stressful situations, which may include addressing family and cultural norms.
  • Coaching children and families on strategies for effective communication, boundary setting and other interpersonal skills used across different cultural contexts, as well as role-modeling these strategies and seeking to understand existing communication strategies and skills.
  • Identifying and supporting the development of a child’s strengths.
  • Educating families about how to interact with children in Trauma-Informed and Responsive ways.
  • Seeking additional professional help and facilitating connections to services, when appropriate.

Survivors of trauma who have healed themselves are also a vital source of support for others who have experienced trauma. When possible, agencies and organizations should create formal peer support programs that connect children, youth and families to other individuals in their community who have experienced similar trauma or connect them to existing programs in the community.