Trauma Informed Practices Support Youth Resilience

a young woman leans against a wall with a cup of tea

When we think about trauma, we often imagine a single precipitating event, maybe an accident, a natural disaster, or an assault. These can certainly be causes of trauma, but chronic adversity, systemic lack of opportunity, disruptions to positive relationships, neglect, and toxic stress can all lead to trauma as well. While these are less dramatic causes, their long-term effects can be just as destabilizing to physical and mental health as a single intense experience of violence or danger.

two young people hug and smile in a garden

Another common misconception about trauma is that all people respond to traumatic events the same way. Trauma is the experience we have as we internally process an event, rather than the event itself. Everyone deals with difficulties differently, so trauma looks different depending on the person. The same event may lead to trauma in some people but not in others. Our ability to experience adversity without a trauma response is tied to our resilience. Resilience is fostered among youth through positive relationships with adults, opportunities for constructive community engagement, and overarching stability and consistency throughout development. Organizations that work with youth in the outdoors are especially well-positioned to engage meaningfully with this issue because time in greenspace is tied to positive mental health outcomes including increased resilience. Nature can also be an important space for those who have experienced trauma to heal.

a group of teens play instruments and sit together in a park

Earlier this month, NRF grantees joined Chris Rutgers of The Trauma Foundation for a workshop to educate those who work with youth about the realities of trauma. The workshop highlighted key strategies for youth development programs to mitigate the effects of trauma and build resilience among participants. Trauma-informed approaches are especially important after all the disruptions young people have experienced in their lives over the past few years due to the pandemic and social instability. LGBTQ+ youth and youth of color historically have higher rates of trauma and recent events have only worsened these disparities.

a girl sits with her head down holding a stuffed toy

With trauma at epidemic levels among young people in the U.S., it’s essential that youth-focused organizations incorporate trauma-informed practices in their work. Two of the best ways to do this are to focus on creating safe relationships and safe spaces for kids. This includes physical safety. Programs based around athletics and outdoor recreation need to have the technical expertise among staff to facilitate activities safely. Authenticity is also key because it builds trust with kids and lets them know that you don’t have an agenda. You’re simply there to support their needs. Promoting positive communication and boundary setting around healthy touch and emotional intimacy can also build resilience among young people. This can be accomplished, at least in part, by incorporating choices for youth throughout their experiences. Trauma is often linked to a loss of autonomy so building in age- and environment-appropriate choices can foster respect and buy-in from youth.

a parent and two young children ride bikes on a greenway

One person or one organization cannot eliminate trauma for young people in our communities. Working towards resilient and trauma-free kids is a long-term, imperfect process that requires collaboration across sectors and generations. Learning more about how trauma works so you’re prepared to recognize and address it with the young people in your life is a good first step. At NRF, we hope to continue supporting organizations doing good work in this area and open the door for others to start the process of including trauma-informed practices in their programs.