Extra-familial harm: understanding trauma responses in young people

Advice from a Community Care Inform guide on using a trauma-informed approach when supporting young people affected by exploitation and other harms in the community

Social worker reassuring a young person
Photo: AdobeStock/Monkey Business

This article presents a few key pieces of advice from Community Care Inform Children’s guide, Trauma-informed practice with young people affected by extra-familial harm. The full guide explores how understanding developmental trauma can be particularly relevant when working with young people affected by harms such as criminal and sexual exploitation, and aims to help social workers respond and support young people using trauma-informed skills. Community Care Inform Children subscribers can access the full guide here.

The guide was written by Kristine Hickle, a professor at the University of Sussex. Her research covers topics including young people’s experiences of child protection responses to extra-familial harm and trauma-informed practice with survivors of abuse and violence.

This article will help you apply an understanding of trauma, and principles of trauma-informed practice, to work with young people experiencing extra-familial harm, including child sexual exploitation (CSE) and criminal exploitation (CCE).

Recognising behavioural indicators of trauma

Recognising behavioural indicators of trauma is particularly important as the experience of trauma can make it difficult or impossible for young people to formulate a coherent account of what happened.

While no two individuals are the same, there is broad consensus that trauma responses can be categorised as avoidance (ie attempts to avoid thoughts, feelings, conversations, places, or people that remind them of the trauma) and arousal (ie hypervigilance or tense or hostile behaviour).

Common trauma responses 

The following are examples of common trauma responses among young people affected by extra-familial harm:

‘Refusing’ behaviour (avoidance)

A young person might recognise, consciously or unconsciously, that they simply are not able to regulate their emotions in a particular environment. Perhaps their survival instincts have kicked in and their bodies are protecting them from feelings of overwhelm by staying away from situations or places where they are likely to feel unsafe.

Numbing, ‘checking out’ (dissociation)

Feeling numb, checking out or dissociating (the automatic response of disconnecting and detaching from an experience when feeling overwhelmed that some can experience) are necessary survival responses when people are unable to find ways to feel safe, calm and emotionally regulated.

If we are not trauma-informed, we may assume a young person who seems emotionless or removed when talking about difficult things is communicating that they are not bothered by distressing experiences, or are perhaps lying about them in the first place.

However, their bodies might be doing them a favour and placing an important protective barrier between them and the traumatic things that have happened.

‘On edge’ (hypervigilance)

Hypervigilance can seem like the polar opposite – in terms of observable body language – to the numb, ‘checked out’ response from a young person.

However, the kinds of hypervigilant behaviours you notice are also perhaps an indicator that a young person’s nervous system is activated; they are in fight or flight mode and sitting still and being calm isn’t a safe mode for their body to be in at that moment.

Inability to plan for the future (foreshortened future)

It can be frustrating when young people are at an age that requires them to be thinking and planning responsibly for the future and they seem unable to.

However, when a traumatised young person’s body is working so hard to try and ‘find calm’ – to emotionally regulate and to stay present in the moment – thinking about GCSEs, work placements, the impact of their behaviour or how a criminal record might follow them into the future may simply not be possible.

It does not mean that it will never be possible, but when they are in survival mode, we shouldn’t expect that they have the capacity to think about the future.

Traumatic bonding

The ‘trauma bond’ they might have developed with a person exploiting them is not just misplaced affection, but one way a young person might subconsciously be attempting to manage those feelings of overwhelm.

In an abusive, exploitative relationship, in which they are continually scared or unsure of what is going to happen and what they should believe, it can be an easier survival response to cultivate feelings of safety and connection with the abusive person when they are not yet sure if it is possible to get away.

Self-harm and self-destructive behaviours

Self-harming can be an attempt to feel something different than the young person feels at the moment. This might mean that they want to stop feeling distressed, dysregulated, numb or dissociative (Edmondson, Brennan, & House, 2016).

They might also feel a need to understand the limits and boundaries of their body. The latter experience might be particularly important for young people whose experiences of physical or sexual abuse mean that they don’t trust or understand their own body’s feelings and sensations very well.

Young people engaging in behaviours that seem risky and destructive might be trying, as best as they can, to stay in the present moment. For a young person who is experiencing flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, or dissociation, doing something that is both exciting and dangerous might bring them back to the present and help to avoid them re-experiencing or thinking about past trauma.

It can also help them feel powerful when they often feel powerless. Some of these high-risk behaviours might also be attempts by young people to relive or recreate past trauma in the present as a way of trying to feel mastery or control over it.

Practice point

As you become aware of young people’s possible trauma responses and the challenges they face in regulating their emotions, it is important to recognise how race and ethnicity, gender, disability, and culture influence the development of trauma responses and professionals’ interpretation of them.

For example, we know from research that Black boys and young men in the UK are often ‘adultified’ within the safeguarding system, meaning that their vulnerability and need for a protective response may not be seen in the same way as for another child of similar age (Davis & Marsh, 2020).

If you have a Community Care Inform Children licence, log on to see the full guide and read more detailed information about developmental trauma, applying trauma-informed approaches in your ongoing work with young people and caring for yourself as a professional working with traumatised people.  

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