In Depth: Understanding Individual Adult and Childhood Trauma

Individual trauma is the result of emotionally harmful or life-threatening events. Left unaddressed, trauma can have lasting adverse effects on an individual’s physical, emotional and social well-being.


Trauma occurs as a result of witnessing or experiencing a life-altering event, such as violence, abuse, neglect, war, crime or incarceration. When an individual experiences multiple traumatic events, especially as a child, he or she is especially likely to suffer from short- and long-term physical and mental health effects. We can help people overcome trauma and break this cycle through the following interventions:

Identify and address adverse childhood experiences

Because trauma that occurs in childhood can have particularly severe, long-term impacts on health, pediatricians should screen all children for Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and communities should provide parental and child supports in a variety of contexts, including schools, hospitals, churches, after-school programs and community centers. In each context, interventions can connect families to other community-based services, building strong parent-child relationships that protect and heal the brain from trauma.

Implement family-focused strategies to address intergenerational trauma

Research shows the best way to mitigate the effects of trauma is through stable and nurturing relationships. Providing parents with help to address their own trauma will have long-lasting positive effects on their ability to connect with and support their children. Assistance can take the form of individual supports such as therapy as well as structural supports such as low-cost child care, respite, stable housing and job-training programs.

Design and implement trauma-informed social service systems

Given the prevalence of trauma in our society, it is of the utmost importance that social service providers – from hospitals to schools to community centers – be trauma-informed. The U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) defines a program, organization or system that is “trauma-informed” as one that:

  • realizes the widespread impact of trauma and understands potential paths for recovery;
  • recognizes the signs and symptoms of trauma in clients, families, staff and others involved with the system;
  • responds by fully integrating knowledge about trauma into policies, procedures and practices; and
  • seeks to actively resist re-traumatization.

For example, Head Start Trauma Smart in Kansas City addresses the high incidence of complex trauma – including family and community violence, family member incarceration, caregiver substance abuse and mental illness, and homelessness – in 3-to-5-year-olds throughout the metro area.

Train police and correctional officers to prevent further traumatization

Many interventions by the criminal justice system are inherently traumatic. Trainings should be provided to all staff to limit and reduce the harm caused by these interventions. This may include eliminating or narrowing the use of coercive practices, such as restraints or solitary confinement in behavioral health and correctional facilities, and making sure children are safe and not in the room when law enforcement is addressing domestic violence situations.

To minimize trauma, agencies must calibrate staff hiring, training and promotion practices to cultivate a trauma-informed organizational culture. Trainings for police and correctional officers should promote adherence to six key principles:

  • Safety
  • Trustworthiness and Transparency
  • Peer Support
  • Collaboration and Mutuality
  • Empowerment, Voice and Choice
  • Cultural, Historical and Gender Issues

In addition, agencies should include policies and practices to ensure that staff have support to cope with the emotional stress of working with people who have had traumatic experiences.