Step One in Meeting the Unique Needs of the Trauma-Impacted Person

a young teacher comforting crying boy in classroom

In my last two blogs, I focused on how the needs differ for someone who has experienced significant trauma versus someone who has not experienced it. In today’s blog, I am beginning a series that focuses on some specific stages or levels a trauma-sensitive person takes to better meet those needs. More importantly, I will focus on how to ensure that the trauma-impacted person experiences safety and trust in the relationship.

It is essential that a trauma-sensitive person values building and maintaining safety and trust above all else when interacting with a trauma-impacted person. Often someone with unresolved trauma has little or no experience with feeling genuinely safe and being able to deeply trust another human being. Picture a large wall that is established to protect that person that in turn prevents safety and trust from crossing over into the relationship.

Over the next few blogs I will share these steps that a trauma-sensitive person can use when deciding how to respond to a trauma-impacted person. This continuum shows a variety of ways a person might respond, from a very high level of gentle distance to gradually being able to move closer. Each step involves an attempt to help meet some of the needs of the trauma-impacted person.

It is important to move fluidly on the different levels of this continuum, often returning to the first level. This is a like the proverbial two steps forward, one step backwards. The trauma-sensitive person notices the impact their comments or behaviors have and uses them to guide what they say or do next.

Level I: Establishing Safety, Keeping Your Distance

Trauma Brain word cloud on a white background.

This is the lowest level of safety and trust both in the trauma impacted person and in terms of their relationship with others. These levels may be extremely low or even non-existent. The person’s brain state may mean they are at a more sensory, implicit level of awareness than at a feeling and/or being level of awareness.  

The trauma-impacted person most likely is on high-alert and experiencing high levels of stress. “I need to know you will keep your distance. Don’t put any pressure on me to share anything I am not ready to share. I need to know you are not judging me. Understand that I don’t feel safe with you or trust you right now. At this moment, I cannot focus on my trauma and everything related to it because that overwhelms me -it sets off all kinds of triggers that I just want to avoid experiencing.” The person

The trauma-sensitive response maintains a physical and relational distance, moving back literally and figuratively as far as seems to be needed to reach the place where the trauma-impacted person seems comfortable. The main goals: establish that you are a safe person and give as much power as possible to the trauma-impacted person.

The responder may or may not speak, may or may not make eye contact, projects a sense of feeling comfortable with the silence, and possibly makes small talk that may break any uncomfortable silences, sometimes sharing a little bit about himself or herself. The responder is conscious of his or her body language and how it is being received, without appearing to be scrutinizing the behaviors of the trauma-impacted person, which could be interpreted as intrusive and potentially critical. Keep your distance unless invited to come closer.

All behaviors by the responder should be experienced by the trauma-impacted person as calm acceptance on the part of the responder. Invite or encourage the person to be in charge, to direct you, engage on his or her terms. This is one way to demonstrate to the trauma-impacted person that they have the power to control you and the situation.  

Young female child pointing her finger

An example of providing safety to a trauma-impacted child happened in my office when a person of authority was seen as unsafe in a child’s eyes who had a trauma disrupted life up to that point. That child had seen bosses, police, and all those in charge as a threat because they had disrupted that child’s sense of security experienced in their home. That child proceeded to point her finger at the “authority figure,” angrily, telling him to get out of the building. Knowing what he knew, he immediately allowed her to guide him outside into the parking lot where she left to return to her primary caregiver who was waiting inside, probably a little mortified that this child had just thrown this adult out of the building! He was calmly and gently keeping his distance in giving this child all the power she needed. It was a critical first step in establishing a framework for future relationship.

Invitation to Reflect

  1. Have you ever seen a trauma-impacted child or adult become either completely submissive or angry and in need of being the most powerful one in the room? How was this person treated by others? Did those in charge step back and empower this child or adult or did it become a struggle to see who would be more powerful?
  2. Can you imagine the deep inner need of this child or adult for having power because a hallmark of being traumatized is being stripped from power? Can you see why it is so important to establish safety and give distance as a first step in interacting with this child or adult?