How to Help People Handle Trauma

December 8, 2014
Jennifer Willis
A woman talking to another woman and writing something in a notebook.

CPI defines the term Integrated Experience as the concept that behaviors and attitudes of staff impact behaviors and attitudes of clients, and vice versa. The Integrated Experience is a reminder of the power in each interaction—and in our efforts to consistently support the health and well-being of those in our care.
In our daily work, we meet and interact with students who have been impacted by traumatic events. It’s important to understand how the trauma the child experienced impacts their behavior, thoughts, and feelings. It’s equally important to be attuned to ourselves and our reaction to their experiences. “Our exposure to the suffering of others takes a toll on us personally and professionally . . .  trauma exposure response is universal” (van Dernoot Lipsky & Burk). 
There is a need for capacity: Recognizing our responsibility to care for our colleagues and students’ well-being in light of their trauma experience. Our ability to remain rationally detached from the trauma of others allows us to provide consistent support to the members of our school community.

Stewards for Well-Being

From a philosophical perspective, while we’re working with individuals who have experienced trauma, we become stewards for their well-being. A steward’s responsibility is to care for another person with the goal of improving the situation over time.
CPI’s philosophy incorporates our responsibility as stewards to provide for the Care, Welfare, Safety, and SecuritySM of our clients. For many students exposed to trauma, trust does not come easy, and in severe cases, the trauma has left the child unable to trust that adults can provide Care, Welfare, Safety, and SecuritySM.
Through the Care, Welfare, Safety, and SecuritySM lens, though, we begin by focusing on the child’s care and welfare: their well-being, which includes their immediate happiness and prosperity. We must ensure that the student feels safe and cared for, even if their first inclination is to resist our efforts to create an environment that is safe for them. The more we are able to provide consistent support based on the individual needs of each student, the more we allow the student to gain trust in us that we will be able to provide for their well-being and safety.


But how can we best undertake this considerable task? The answer is attunement.
Attunement is the ability to see beyond the behavior presented by the student to determine the real meaning behind the behavior (Kinniburgh and Blaustein). Often, the student’s behavior could really be telling you, “I don’t trust you,” in which case we need to look at what more we can do to gain that trust. 
So before we can begin to care for others, we must begin by caring for ourselves, and being attuned to ourselves. When we are attuned to ourselves, we are consciously aware of the way we’re thinking about ourselves and whether we are caring for ourselves. We are attuned to our eating and sleeping patterns, our exercise habits, our self-care rituals, and how those rituals positively impact us. The better we care for ourselves, the better able we are to care for others. When a child and caretaker are attuned, “a child is able to feel felt by a caregiver and has a sense of stability in the present moment” (Siegel).

Our efforts to attune to ourselves are reflected in our efforts to remain connected with those in our care. When we remain attuned to the students we serve, this “enables the child to develop the regulatory circuits of the brain and broaden their capacity for self-regulation and empathic relationships” (Siegel).
When we consider our self-attunement within CPI’s Integrated Experience concept, we start to see that being aware of our own feelings is only part of the story. Because we work with clients who often react to a perceived threat with a heightened fight-flight response, we must also be acutely aware of how we wear those emotions on our faces and in our body language. What you say is far less significant than what they hear.
Once a student feels attuned, understood, connected, cared for, and supported, they are better able to safely be self-aware, and thus, relax their facial muscles, lower the volume of their voice, and return to a rational state. The stronger the connection, the faster the student returns to a rational state of mind. Over time, the reaction is regulated and the student responds to stressors with pro-social skills and behaviors (Siegel).
Throughout this challenging process, we also have the responsibility to maintain compassion for ourselves and others, otherwise we risk losing a part of ourselves in an effort for self-preservation. We risk becoming more disconnected, aloof, or guarded—all in an effort to protect ourselves.
“The attunement of the teacher with students creates the grounding for them to become mindful. Once you embrace the intention to be open and in the present, there are specific ways in which people of all ages can be encouraged to reflect” (Siegel).


Think about the idea of mindfulness, and how our use of this skill allows us to stay attuned to ourselves: “Mindfulness is a form of paying attention in the present moment, on purpose” (Siegel). The critical essence of mindfulness is “the teachable capacity for reflection. Reflection is the skill that embeds self-knowing and empathy in the curriculum” (Siegel).
One way we can remain mindful each day is to ask the question, “Is this working for me?” It’s also helpful to consult with a confidant about this question, as it is critical not to become isolated at work. Additionally, you can write down your thoughts about your intentions and review them periodically (van Dernoot Lipsky & Burk). 
In order to visit your inner dialogue about how you navigate your day, tune in to the running commentary for one day and determine if you are seeing things in an optimistic or pessimistic frame of mind. Now take a moment to stand in front of a mirror. What are the first three things you notice? Are they positive and kind things? (van Dernoot Lipsky & Burk)

Seeing ourselves as trauma stewards is an opportunity to change our way of experiencing our day-to-day lives while we also enhance the impact we have on others in our school communities. It’s a viewpoint without a focus on our struggle. Instead, we focus on our well-being and our daily interactions—how we approach, navigate, and travel through challenges.

Rational Detachment

In order to do this, we need to be able to rationally detach and be mindful of our boundaries and ourselves as separate individuals in our school communities. In light of the necessity to acknowledge and honor the boundaries between ourselves and our colleagues and students, we must also consider how we define our personal connection to our work. “The more personal our connection to work, the greater the gifts we bring . . . [however], the more we identify with the type of trauma we are exposed to, the greater the impact on us may be” (van Dernoot Lipsky & Burk). For example, research shows that over time, those of us who work with children who are unable to speak on their own behalves may over-identify with the child and compromise our ability to effectively advocate for them.
When we begin to struggle in our daily work, the way we respond to trauma directly impacts our working climate. “Trauma exposure responses manifest in our work in two . . . ways: lack of accountability and unethical behavior” (van Dernoot Lipsky & Burk).
“Often people begin recognizing the effect of trauma exposure when they realize they are behaving in ways they never would have when they first started working in their field” (van Dernoot Lipsky & Burk). This can lead us to feel guilty and struggle to bridge the gap between who we have become and who we were when we initially entered our field of practice.

Secondary Trauma

It’s imperative for our emotional well-being that we acknowledge and recognize the effect of secondary trauma in our daily work. “We accumulate and carry the stories of trauma—including images, sounds, resonant details—we have heard which then come to inform our worldview” (Joyful Heart Foundation).
Secondary trauma, vicarious trauma, and burnout are terms used to describe our experience of being overwhelmed by the challenges faced by those in our care. By remaining self-aware, or mindful, “we improve the capacity to regulate emotion, to combat emotional dysfunction, to improve patterns of thinking, and to reduce negative mindsets” (Siegel). We must “stay fully present in our experience, no matter how difficult” (van Dernoot Lipsky & Burk).
When we are supporting a student in crisis, the intensity of the situation impacts the way we navigate. These moments can be some of the most powerful opportunities to build and maintain Therapeutic Rapport with students who struggle with trauma.
Some of the reactions that we have to trauma include:

  • Feeling helpless and hopeless
  • Feeling as though you can’t do enough
  • Being hyper-vigilant
  • Feeling that your creativity is diminished
  • Being unable to embrace complexity
  • Minimizing
  • Feeling chronic exhaustion or physical ailments
  • Being deliberately avoidant or unable to listen
  • Having dissociative experiences
  • Experiencing a sense of persecution
  • Guilt, fear, anger
  • Being unable to empathize
  • Developing addictions
  • Being grandiose

What is particularly intense about the experience of reading the list of reactions is how many of these responses to trauma that we have already experienced or seen a colleague struggle with in our daily work.


Our willingness to take ownership of our reactions allows us to strengthen our efforts to practice self-care. It’s important to remain mindful that we choose how we react to our experiences. We are at our best when we invest in our interests by continuing to enjoy hobbies and meaningful tasks to broaden our opportunities to experience rich and fulfilling investments in our well-being. We also have more positive daily experiences when we make healthy choices and remain connected to others who can “serve as a buffer in dealing with difficult situations” (van Dernoot Lipsky & Burk).
So what can we do to attain this balance in our work lives and our interactions with students? Ultimately, it is a simple concept that is challenging to attain on a daily basis: live in the present moment and make contact with your inner self (van Dernoot Lipsky & Burk). It is when you are most attuned to yourself that you can determine what you need to heal yourself. Our self-awareness allows us to advocate for our own well-being, and, thereby, for the well-being of others.

Trauma-Informed Care Resources Guide

This eBook will provide you with an understanding of trauma, its triggers, and how it affects behavior—allowing you to prevent trauma-induced crises in the workplace and beyond.



As you prepare to strengthen your self-awareness, remember to be compassionate for yourself and others. Consider who can become an ally by sharing an advantage that you have. Think of three ways that you can support positive change in a system you are involved in. Develop a relationship with someone in a leadership position and provide support to them. Remember that leadership is often isolated and often set up for failure. Your efforts will help this leader remain grounded and self-aware (van Dernoot Lipsky & Burk).
Just for you, identify something you would like to incorporate into your workday. Now strive to make that idea a reality. Plan your vacation time and mental health days. Honor your weekends. The labor movement ensured that we would have humane working conditions! (van Dernoot Lipsky & Burk)
Take the time to take deep breaths and to stretch during the day. Strive to take outdoor breaks throughout the day. Breathe in deeply and slowly. Notice what is beautiful around you. Set up consistent check-ins with a colleague or friend. Quietly listen and attune to them while they speak, and then it’s your turn (van Dernoot Lipsky & Burk).
When we are successful in helping the members of our community grow, we are supporting the belief that “joy and pain are realities of life, and that suffering can be transformed into meaningful growth and healing when a quality of presence is cultivated and maintained even in the face of great suffering” (Van Dernoot Lipsky & Burk).
As you begin and end your workday, take a moment to think about what you are grateful for. Share gratitude with the teachers in your life. Use a space in your community to share gratitude with your colleagues. We can anticipate a healthy, supportive, professional work environment that supports our emotional well-being by each of us being responsible for our individual contribution to the greater good.
“As much as you can, try to make your space away from work a peaceful one—one in which you can take refuge, seek clarity, withdraw, be still, and relax. The more you integrate wellness practices into your daily life, the deeper the root they will take. They will enhance your life and the lives of those around you and they will be more likely to sustain—and help you find your voice—during more difficult times when it may be harder to hear” (Joyful Heart Foundation).


  • Joyful Heart Foundation. “Vicarious Trauma.”
  • Joyful Hear Foundation. “Resources.”
  • Kinniburgh, Kristine M. Margaret E. Blaustein (2010). Treating traumatic stress in children and adolescents: How to foster resilience through attachment, self-regulation, and competency. New York: The Guilford Press.
  • Siegel, Daniel J. (2007). The mindful brain: Reflection and attunement in the cultivation of well-being. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
  • van Dernoot Lipsky, Laura. Connie Burk. Trauma stewardship: An everyday guide to caring for self while caring for others. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2009.

About the Author

Jennifer Willis is a lifelong learner and first-year kindergarten teacher. Jen has been teaching Nonviolent Crisis Intervention® training for two years and incorporates Love and Logic in her CPI
training with an emphasis on empathy.

Originally published in the Journal of Safe Management of Disruptive and Assaultive Behavior, Fall 2014. © 2014 CPI.

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