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How to Navigate the Complex World of Trauma Therapy

May 28, 2021

When adolescents or teens experience trauma, the results can be detrimental to their physical and psychological health. Many long to feel a sense of safety and comfort again but are not sure how to process what they have witnessed or been through. Healing from a traumatic experience is a complex, seemingly unattainable challenge. Trauma-informed therapy at a teen-focused treatment center like Hillcrest provides a safe space to unpack the emotions and difficulties often associated with traumatic experiences allowing your teen to begin the process of healing and moving forward from the dark places trauma often leads people to. 

What is Trauma?

Trauma can be emotional or physical. The path to recovery from physical trauma such as an injury is often easier and more direct than from emotional or psychological trauma. Psychological trauma is your teen’s emotional response to a terrible event such as a natural disaster, accident, sudden loss of a loved one, or an abusive situation. A teen who is subjected to emotional trauma may react in various ways. Initially, shock and denial are common. 

However, these short-lived reactions to trauma often give way to long-term emotional struggles, including flashbacks, impulsive reactions, and difficulties with relationships. Depending on the individual and the severity of the trauma, it may feel difficult, if not impossible, to move on from the experience without seeking therapy and support. It is important to remember that your teen does not need to experience the trauma directly. 

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5Th Edition) notes there are several ways one can be exposed to trauma. They include directly experiencing the event, witnessing the events as they occur to others, learning the event happened to a close family member or friend, or experiencing repeated or extreme exposure to details of the event (such as news coverage of the event).

How Trauma Affects Your Teen’s Mental Health

Trauma physically changes the brain. When someone experiences a traumatic event, their mind and how the brain functions change. Areas of the brain that once worked or performed in a particular way are altered based on hyperarousal and other new emotional sensitivities stemming from trauma. An example of this is the amygdala. The amygdala is responsible for the “fight or flight” we are all familiar with. That response is the emotional and physical response that occurs due to a triggering situation, event, or person. When they have experienced trauma and encounter a trigger, the amygdala becomes overactive, causing your teen to be hypervigilant and alert. Although there may not be an actual danger, past trauma takes over, and the brain works overtime until it realizes everything is safe and okay. 

What is Trauma-Informed Care?

Trauma-informed care is therapeutic care in which mental health providers engage with your teen in a way that allows for using effective evidence-based treatment processes without retraumatization. This type of care requires an understanding that your teen’s trauma in the past can have a lasting and detrimental impact on their current day-to-day life. 

Trauma-informed care involves therapy providers adhering to specific principles for practice that ensure sensitivity and a deep understanding of trauma-related issues regardless of your teen’s current presenting concern. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) provides an easy-to-understand outline of the trauma-informed care approach to better help teens, and their families navigate what can sometimes be a complex area of mental health care. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration breaks the trauma-informed approach down into seven principles. 


Providers and treatment centers focusing on a trauma-informed approach strive to ensure the counseling and treatment environment are safe. This ensures clients are able to engage actively in counseling to achieve the most significant benefit. 

Trustworthiness and Transparency

For clients to feel safe and be willing to engage, counselors must be open and honest about the therapy and treatment process and the rules surrounding the treatment process at the facility. 

Peer Support

Peer support is crucial to recovery. As part of a trauma-informed approach, stories of others who have experienced trauma are often incorporated into the treatment process. This helps clients feel safe, feel trust in the counseling process and begin to feel hopeful that recovery is within reach. 

Collaboration and Mutuality

Counselors should act as partners, not authority figures. In doing this, they provide support and assistance rather than “direct” clients through their healing process. 

Empowerment, Voice, and Choice

To help clients on their recovery trauma-informed journey, it is essential for counselors to encourage clients’ strengths, choices, and their voice. This allows clients to realize their internal resiliency and take charge of their healing. 

Cultural, Historical, and Gender Awareness

It is essential for counselors to put aside any pre-determined assumptions about clients’ cultural identities. It is vital they do not respond to clients based on assumption but instead based on the unique narrative clients provide to them. 

Counselors using a trauma-informed approach understand the impact of trauma and the potential for recovery. The therapy providers at Hillcrest strive at all times to provide your teen a safe environment and counseling experience that does not contribute to retraumatization. 

Common Types of Trauma-Informed Therapy

There are many different types of therapy used in the mental health treatment setting; however, not all are appropriate for a trauma-informed approach. There are three common types of treatment that are considered beneficial when dealing with trauma. These include Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TFCBT), Psychodynamic psychotherapy and

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR).

Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is a type of cognitive-behavioral therapy that helps people of all ages struggling with traumatic experiences. It is designed to address the thoughts that have to do specifically with a traumatic experience. Often, treatment consists of between eight and twenty sessions. During therapy, your teen can learn relaxation techniques that can help during and after therapy when exposed to triggers. 

Psychodynamic Psychotherapy

This form of therapy is a common model that strives to uncover the conflicts that live in the unconscious mind. During therapy, someone who has experienced trauma discusses their symptoms, thoughts, and the specific traumatic event with their provider. This approach requires your teen to be open and willing to discuss the thoughts that enter their mind. This type of therapy can help your teen learn more about the defense mechanisms they are using that may be preventing them from addressing their trauma. 

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing was created with the goal of helping trauma sufferers process trauma in healthier ways. EMDR generally produces quicker results than other forms of therapy. The premise of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing is that the mind is always moving towards stable mental health unless something blocks that progress. The goal of EMDR is to remove the blockage put in place by trauma. 

The Importance of Trauma-Informed Care

Integration of trauma-informed care into mental health services and treatment facilities such as Hillcrest provides many benefits. These benefits extend far beyond the clients seeking help but to their family, communities, treatment staff, and the organization as a whole.

The principles of trauma-informed care bring to light and focus the belief that trauma can significantly and pervasively impact an individual’s well-being. These impacts spread to all facets of the individual’s existence, including their physical, psychological, and spiritual health. Studies and research indicate trauma-informed care highlights the importance of highly trained staff with trauma-specific knowledge and skills designed to meet your teen’s specific needs. 

This includes recognizing that some individuals may be affected by trauma regardless of their memories of the event or their acceptance that it occurred. Specialists in trauma-informed care understand that retraumatization is possible through standard or unexamined practices and treatment models. Therefore, trauma-informed care stresses the importance of addressing the client individually and addressing their unique treatment needs and goals rather than applying general treatment approaches that may not be suitable for their trauma history. 

A trauma-informed care approach is designed to provide a greater sense of safety for teens who have a trauma history in addition to a means of preventing the more severe consequences of reintroducing traumatic stress. Trauma-informed care offers your teen the opportunity to explore the impact of trauma, learn more about their strengths and resilience and identify safe and healthy ways to manage their trauma history and potential exposure to trauma in the future. 

Traumatic events are more common among adolescents and teens than most people realize. According to data published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, at least 71% of children experience a potentially traumatic event by the time they turn eighteen. Childhood trauma is specifically associated with chronic health and behavioral problems; therefore, it is crucial to seek support and treatment in a trauma-informed care setting where therapy providers look to the framework of a trauma-informed care approach. If your teen has experienced a traumatic event, the idea of sending them to treatment is likely concerning and confusing. For many teens, the concept of being away from home may only serve to be more traumatizing. 

At Hillcrest, we understand the challenges parents face when trying to find the best alternative to help their children overcome the challenges associated with childhood trauma. Our caring and compassionate treatment staff are here to provide support and guidance to your teen and your family as your teen seeks a future beyond their trauma symptoms. If you are ready to help your teen begin the process of healing, reach out to the admissions team at Hillcrest today.