700 Children's® – A Blog by Pediatric Experts

How Compounding Trauma Affects Youth

Aug 05, 2021
teenager wearing a zipped hooded sweatshirt, leaning his head against a brick wall.

Young people are experiencing trauma in different ways, from peer to peer violence and pressures to witnessing ongoing community violence and racial injustice. A recent homicide unfortunately marks our city’s 100th homicide of the year. The rate of homicides, almost doubled this year compared to the same time last year, is a very concerning trend. These types of trauma, coupled with a global pandemic, may cause feelings of distress and uncertainty. And in uncertain times, it is natural to search for things that make us feel safe and connected.

Because structured, safe spaces for connection may not always be available, teens may turn to an unhealthy space to build those connections. High risk environments may include gang violence, illegal drug use or engaging with adults who intentionally cross boundaries online.

When we experience toxic stress and compounding trauma, our brains are in survival mode and do not necessarily think logically. During survival mode, teens and adults alike will move toward where they feel a sense of comfort and security. This could be a space where young people have built trust or common ground with other individuals, even though the space isn’t necessarily safe.

How Resilience Can Be Misinterpreted

Resiliency can be defined as being resourceful in moments of stress and crisis. However, we often see a slanted version of resilience in pop culture and on social media. For example, media may portray a resilient person as someone who is extremely independent and doesn’t ask for help. Additionally, younger people may see resilience in the form of memes or posts that read, “positive vibes only.” It’s important to clarify that resilience is not this perceived idea of extreme independence and strength. Rather, resilience is about vulnerability and connection.

As an adult, think about how you define resilience in your mind. Be aware of your own life experiences and recognize that the young people in your life have their own unique experiences. When speaking to a young person, approach them with curiosity. Be open to their reflections about what space they are in now, and what some safer options might be.

How You Can Help

If you have safety concerns about where teens are seeking connection, remove judgement. Don’t shame and blame them for seeking connection in these spaces. When discussing trauma, it’s normal to want to say, “You’ll get through it” or “Some people have it a lot worse,” but this is dismissive of their lived experiences. Other statements to avoid include:

  • “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps and get over it.”
  • “You’re so strong, nothing keeps you down.”
  • “I made it through worse – it builds character”
  • “Don’t you think you’re being a little dramatic?”
  • “You’re so sensitive.”

Instead, focus on honoring their feelings and experiences. Supportive statements include:

  • “You’re right, it is really hard when…”
  • “I’m here for you if you’d like to talk more.”
  • “I hear you – it’s tough to…”

Practice Active Listening

Before having a conversation with a young person in your life, remind yourself that all feelings are valid and young people may need support in navigating appropriate behaviors in response to feelings. If you have safety concerns about where that young person is seeking out connection, remove judgment. Instead, try this:

  • Approach with curiosity by asking open-ended questions.
    • Tell me about how this person/group/ app is important to you?
    • How do you feel when you are with this person/ group/ app?
  • Practice listening to understand, opposed to listening to respond.
  • Pause to hear them.

We must honor what young people in our community are doing to survive, even if we don’t necessarily agree with or understand it. The best thing you can do to help them through adversity is to be a safe, healthy adult. This is achieved by fostering open communication that feels non-judgmental.

Violence has disproportionately impacted Black and Brown neighborhoods and Nationwide Children’s Hospital and The Center for Family Safety and Healing are committed to standing against racism and standing for health equity. Our aspiration is to work with community partners, the city and others to address poverty by tackling housing, workforce development, education, access to health care and our hope is that working together with communities we could help make communities safe.

In partnership with the community, we have seen what it means when a family can live in a high-quality, affordable home. We understand the long-term effects that better access to educational and workforce opportunities can have. We know that feeling safe in a neighborhood makes a difference in how children learn and grow.

For additional information that focuses on resilience after community violence, please visit The Columbus CARE Coalition.
Looking for FREE Mental Health Resources for Children?
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Caitlin Tully
Caitlin Tully
The Center for Family Safety and Healing

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700 Children’s® features the most current pediatric health care information and research from our pediatric experts – physicians and specialists who have seen it all. Many of them are parents and bring a special understanding to what our patients and families experience. If you have a child – or care for a child – 700 Children’s was created especially for you.