How Can Trauma-Focused CBT Help Young People to Heal?

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When young people are living with unprocessed trauma, it can affect every part of their self. Young people have described feeling like everything is dark, like they have no future, or that they are ‘nobody’. Some speak about experiencing intense feelings of guilt and shame and finding it hard to form genuine relationships with others.

Many adolescents who have had traumatic experiences find that speaking about what happened causes extreme distress. They may avoid talking about their trauma for years after the event. However, this avoidance can stop them from processing the trauma that continues to cloud their lives.

Trauma-focused cognitive behavioural therapy is a type of talking therapy that involves speaking about traumatic events with a therapist. Through speaking about their trauma, young people may understand the connection between trauma and life’s difficulties, erode shame and guilt related to their experience, desensitise to the traumatic memory, and reconceptualise their experience as traumatic.

While many young people describe the process of sharing their trauma as deeply distressing, they also describe it as liberating, and something they needed to do to reclaim their lives.

This blog offers some information about the evidence behind trauma therapy and how it can change young people’s lives.

What Does Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioural Therapy Involve?

TF-CBT is a flexible therapy that’s used to treat post-traumatic stress symptoms, trauma-related anxiety, depression, and behavioural problems. It’s an evidence-based intervention specifically designed for children and adolescents who are affected by trauma and their caregivers.

TF-CBT sessions involve gradual exposure to a traumatic memory or things related to the trauma. This exposure takes place within other elements of treatment, including psychoeducation, parenting skills, relaxation skills, affective modulation (effectively adapting your emotional responses to be more helpful), cognitive skills, trauma narration and processing, and a focus on safety.

Having an authentic relationship with a therapist is especially important for young people participating in TF-CBT. While it’s normal to have anxieties about discussing trauma with an unknown therapist, young people have found that a therapist’s transparency, confidentiality, expertise, empathy, and neutrality can help them feel safe and comfortable.

In many cases, a sense of feeling cared for and validated by a therapist can strengthen their recovery journey.

How Effective is TF-CBT?

Research shows that TF-CBT is effective in treating post-traumatic stress symptoms among children and adolescents. It may even be more effective than other established trauma-focused therapies such as eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing therapy (EMDR), causing long-lasting positive changes.

Evidence shows that TF-CBT also leads to improvements in depression symptoms and behavioural problems immediately after treatment.

How Does TF-CBT Help Young People to Heal from Trauma?

Young people who have taken part in TF-CBT describe how talking about their trauma, while difficult and sometimes distressing, was crucial for their recovery. Some children and adolescents describe a transformative change that affected their future outlook and the way they saw themselves.

A study among 13 17-25-year-olds explored the subjective experiences of young people who took part in the therapy.  We’ve shared some of their insights below.

Speaking About Trauma is Challenging but Important

Many young people found speaking about their traumatic experiences deeply challenging. Some found it a scary or painful experience that felt like re-experiencing the event again. Others described recounting their trauma as even more painful than the actual event, as they were unable to ‘shut off’.

However, every young person also recognised the importance – and necessity – of speaking about their trauma. They understood that talking about trauma was something that they had to go through in order to heal.

Many of the young people had expected the process to be difficult but saw it as something that needed to happen. Driven by a desire to recover and trust in the benefits of speaking about trauma, most continued with therapy despite the challenges they faced.

Opening the Doors to Sharing With Others

Many young people found that after speaking about their trauma to their therapist, they were suddenly able to talk about it with other people too. This opened the door to support and care from family and friends that had previously been cut off by their inability to share their experiences.

Some young people felt more relaxed or at peace with their trauma or found that others had shared similar experiences and could connect with them on a deeper level. 

Far-Reaching and Transformative Change

For many young people, TF-CBT was a process of transformative change. They describe a complete alteration of their worldview and new-found hopes for a meaningful future. 

Some young people saw trauma therapy as a way to return to their former selves. Many had understood their traumatic experience as preventing them from realising their authentic selves or from being the same person as they were before the event. Through trauma therapy, some young people described a process of becoming their current selves or even the emergence of a new person.

Self-Improvement and Personal Growth

Some young people described how speaking about trauma led to an improved self that made them a better person. For some adolescents, feelings of guilt and shame that had previously surrounded their experience had made them feel like they were a ‘bad person’ with little self-worth. By talking about and overcoming these feelings, they began to value themselves again.

Others found that trauma therapy helped them to build better interpersonal relations with others. One described a new desire to spend time with other people, support them, and be a ‘good person’. They explained how after therapy, they saw everything a bit differently.

The experiences of young people who took part in trauma-focused CBT show the power of therapy to transform and change the lives of young people.

Effective treatment can build self-love and open up doors to the future. Every young person deserves to live a meaningful and fulfilling life, unclouded by past experiences of trauma – and it’s crucial that they can access the support they need to get there.

The Wave Clinic: Transformative Mental Health Treatment for Young People 

The Wave Clinic offers specialist recovery programs for young people, supporting them to build better futures. Our whole-person approach combines exceptional clinical care with education, social responsibility, and a gap year experience, helping young people reconnect with themselves and develop the skills they need to follow their dreams.

We understand how experiences of trauma not only affect a young person’s internal experience but also how they interact with the outside world. Our trauma-focused programs expertly and sensitively address trauma in an empathetic and caring environment, lifting the weight of the past from young people’s shoulders.

Guided by our values of inclusivity and fairness, we believe that all young people deserve to access effective mental health support, especially when they have been unable to receive it elsewhere.

If you would like to find out more about our programs or start the admissions process, contact us today. We’re here to support you.

Fiona - The Wave Clinic

Fiona Yassin is the founder and clinical director at The Wave Clinic. She is a U.K. and International registered Psychotherapist and Accredited Clinical Supervisor (U.K. and UNCG).

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