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SSRC Notes: Trauma-informed approaches to increase self-sufficiency as adolescents transition to adulthood

Date Added to Library: 
Thursday, September 22, 2016 - 20:01
Individual Author: 
Lantos, Hannah
Wilkinson, Andra
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Posted by Hannah Lantos and Andra Wilkinson, Self-Sufficiency Research Clearinghouse and Child Trends Staff


Today we hear the phrase 'trauma-informed care' frequently at government agencies, school districts, job training programs, hospitals, and among researchers. The surge is significant. An Internet search engine review shows that between 1986 and 2000, the term comes up 54 times. Between 2001 and 2015, it comes up 2,540 times. Why the interest now and what does it mean for self-sufficiency researchers and practitioners?

In the last two decades, research has begun to show how prevalent trauma is and how those experiences, particularly in childhood, can impact long-term health and well-being. In 1998, a seminal paper on adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) analyzed a broad sample of Californians and found high rates of housing instability, physical or sexual abuse, or parental discord during childhood. More than 50% of the respondents reported experiencing at least one of these ACEs, while 6.2% reported experiencing four or more. In 2014, a subsequent ACEs study held focus groups with low-income urban young adults to see whether the original list of ACEs was salient to them. They identified the following additional adverse experiences: living in a single-parent home, exposure to violence, criminal behavior, personal victimization, bullying, economic hardship, and discrimination.

In the last decade there has also been a surge of neuroscientific and psychological research on childhood stress. Referred to in the literature is toxic stress—it is triggered when the body’s stress response system is over-activated to the point where health can be compromised. When children experience stress that reaches toxic levels (through either acute or chronic exposure), this can lead to feelings of terror, helplessness, and loss of trust—all symptoms of trauma. When children have repeated or sustained elevated levels of stress and no adult to help them learn how to regulate these stressors (or when adults are the cause of the elevated stress), children’s brain development can be seriously impacted. Fewer neuronal connections may be made, thus impacting the child’s behavior, self-regulation, and impulsivity. 

Young people who are from disadvantaged backgrounds (e.g., in foster care, homeless, or involved in the juvenile justice system), are from low-income families, and/or are members of a racial or ethnic minorities report higher rates of potentially traumatic experiences. Research has highlighted the potential consequences of childhood trauma later in life on both physical and mental health, which can then hinder professional success and self-sufficiency. For example, research has focused on how children who have experienced trauma are sometimes less able to effectively control their attention, remember details, plan, or be flexible in their thinking. These skills are often referred to as executive functioning skills and interventions that take a trauma-informed approach to employment or education supports focus on practicing them. These specific skills can improve self-sufficiency in populations of young people who are much more likely to be at risk for trauma. 
To take a trauma-informed approach when working with young people, programs must recognize a history of trauma; treat the trauma symptoms, if possible; respond to behavior that may be shaped by that trauma; and make serious, intentional efforts to minimize the chance of re-traumatization. For example, a recent evaluation of a program in Tennessee designed to help youth from foster care or juvenile justice programs transition to adulthood focuses on life skills, mental health (including trauma-focused therapy), education, housing, and employment. Evaluators of this program found that participation in one year of services translated to positive outcomes in earnings and economic well-being, among other outcomes. 
Even when research doesn’t describe trauma-informed approaches explicitly, it often highlights the potential for programs to support and improve the life outcomes of young people who may have experienced trauma. Successful programs minimize re-traumatization and provide young people opportunities to learn how to cope and develop essential skills for self-sufficiency. Research also highlights the need for explicit discussions of trauma as well as sensitive measures of ongoing trauma and stress to better understand the role these play as mediators between program participation and outcomes for youth. It is important for practitioners to understand this developing literature so that they can support young people in having as healthy a transition to adulthood as possible given their histories of exposure to potentially traumatizing experiences.
Learn more about trauma among youth in the SSRC Library:
A recently posted SSRC Selection on trauma, youth, and self-sufficiency includes more in-depth descriptions of resources. Additionally, the SSRC Library contains numerous reports and stakeholder resources about trauma and trauma-informed approaches, including:

For more resources, check out the SSRC Library and subscribe to SSRC or follow us on Twitter to receive updates about upcoming events, new library materials on self-sufficiency topics of interest to you and more.

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