The importance of using words with compassionate care in treatment and recovery for young people
When working with vulnerable young people, it is absolutely critical to ensure that the language you use is not exacerbating the trauma they have already experienced. Though it may seem like a complex minefield to navigate as a parent, teacher, friend, or healthcare professional, learning to adapt your words to be empathetic, empowering, and trauma-informed is the best way to ensure that your message is getting through.
Words and Phrases
Trauma comes from many different places, but the end result for young people is often a vulnerability and uncertainty and a lack of trust in those who are trying to help. In order to communicate that we as carers are here to help, support, and listen, it is important to avoid certain words and phrases that put focus on negative or harmful aspects or which emphasise the role of the young person in the traumatic event.
Some examples of vocabulary and words that should be avoided are:
- ‘I can’t believe it!’
- ‘I feel sorry for you.’
- ‘You’re safe now.’
- Referring to them as a ‘victim’.
- Saying they have been or can be ‘rescued’.
- Using the word ‘fix’.
The last thing you want to do when trying to provide support or treatment to a young person who has been traumatised is make them feel as though they are to blame for their problems. The International Organisation for Adolescents (IOFA) has created a useful sheet listing some of these problematic words and phrases and provides alternatives.
Creating Inclusive Space
Avoiding saying certain things is an important aspect of learning to use speech empathetically when dealing with vulnerable young people, but using trauma-informed language encompasses more than simply blanking out some of the words you would normally use. According to A Better Start (ABS), the preferred response to the issue of childhood trauma is to take a proactive focus on prevention. This means putting the emphasis on the abilities and the strengths of the young person in question. Rather than focusing on what has gone wrong for them or how they have been hurt, trauma-informed language should be informed by focusing on what they can do now. This could mean emphasising current interests and talents, highlighting the possibility of the future by focusing on what’s coming next, or by engaging with how they might want their lives to look outside of what they are currently experiencing in terms of trauma.
Trauma-informed language is derived from the wider practice of trauma-informed care; a psychological strategy developed specifically to work meaningfully with vulnerable populations of all types. Below is an explanation of this concept from the research of Hopper, Bassuk, and Olivet:
“Trauma-informed care is a strengths-based framework that is grounded in an understanding of and responsiveness to the impact of trauma, that emphasises physical, psychological, and emotional safety for both providers and survivors, and that creates opportunities for survivors to rebuild a sense of control and empowerment.”
The Four R’s of a Trauma-Informed Approach
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA) outlines four key R’s associated with a trauma-informed approach to working with young people.
The first R is realisation: everyone involved in trauma-informed care must have a good understanding of trauma itself and how it affects families, individuals, and communities. That is, they must realise what trauma is and how it relates to the situations at hand.
Those working with young people who seek to use a trauma-informed approach must be able to recognise the signs of trauma. This can involve specific systems of trauma screening and assessment but also involves being able to identify how different factors – age, gender, family situation, personal situation, etc. – influence the way trauma presents in an individual.
The third R is respond: this means taking account of the situation and using trauma-informed knowledge to approach it intelligently and compassionately. Language and behaviours are changed in response to the different factors identified at earlier stages and in line with evidenced-based trauma care practices.
When working with individuals who have experienced trauma, there is always a risk of re-traumatisation. Therefore, the final R is to resist exactly this: this means keeping aware of how individuals, over the course of the entire treatment process, are likely to encounter situations and interactions that may cause them to re-enter their trauma and consistently working to avoid this throughout.
How Trauma-Informed Language Helps Young People
The key feature of trauma-informed language is that it is informed by principles of compassion. This is precisely why using trauma-informed language is so important in helping young people who are in treatment: it creates a recovery environment by fostering strong relationships between individuals. Trauma-informed language provides ongoing evidence to young people that they are being listened to and have allies, rather than making them feel like they are a problem or a project that needs to be fixed or solved.
At The Wave, our treatment programmes feature a mix of one-on-one therapy, group therapy sessions, and community-based activities in order to create a place of hope, safety, and comfort for all. Trauma-informed language plays a major role in that process. Our staff are trained using the most up to date research on trauma-informed language, and we encourage our young people to use this type of communication when engaging with one another so that the entire recovery programme facilitates well-being and trust.
Even when communicating with teenagers who are not in treatment or recovery programmes, using trauma-informed language to create spaces of trust and community can be a wonderful way to ensure that your message gets across. Using language more carefully in order to provide a sense of support for young people – many of whom are struggling with their identity and how to be themselves in a challenging world – can go a long way to creating an environment in which young people and teenagers are comfortable expressing themselves and experimenting with their identities in ways that are healthy and productive to future happiness.
 IOFA and Courtney’s House. (2018) Trauma-Informed Language To Use When Working With Survivors Of Youth Sex Trafficking. International Organisation for Adolescents. http://iofa.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/IOFA-Trauma-Informed-Language.pdf
 A Better Start. (2021) Trauma-Informed Practice in Early Child Development. National Children’s Bureau. TNL. https://www.ncb.org.uk/sites/default/files/uploads/attachments/ABS%20Insight%204%20-%20Trauma%20Informed%20Practice%20-%20FINAL%20lo-res.pdf
 Hopper, E. K., Bassuk, E. L., & Olivet, J. (2010). Shelter from the Storm: Trauma-Informed Care in Homelessness Services Settings.
 SAMHSA, (2014). SAMHSA’s Concept of Trauma and Guidance for a Trauma-Informed Approach. Department of Health and Human Services, USA. https://store.samhsa.gov/sites/default/files/d7/priv/sma14-4884.pdf
 Sweeney, A. et al, (2018). A paradigm shift: relationships in trauma-informed mental health services. BJPsych Advances. Sept 24 (5): 319-333. 10.1192/bja.2018.29