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  3. Children Who Have Experienced Trauma

Children Who Have Experienced Trauma

Understanding trauma and how traumatic events can affect young people is essential when promoting recovery and resilience and ensuring that young people are not retraumatized through experiences with human service systems. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has developed a working definition of trauma:

Individual trauma results from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual's functioning and physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.1

Children of incarcerated parents may face a range of traumatic experiences as a result of

  • disrupted family life,
  • experiences related to a parent’s arrest or the events leading up to it,
  • witnessing violence in their communities or directly in their household,
  • exposure to drug and/or alcohol abuse, and
  • involvement in the child welfare system.2

In working with children of incarcerated parents, it is therefore important to take a trauma-informed approach, which includes recognizing the types of traumatic experiences that these young people may have faced, helping them recognize the presence of potential triggers, and acknowledging the role that trauma has played in their lives. It is essential to implement interventions specific to the trauma experienced by children of incarcerated parents and to examine ways to reduce further trauma from their experiences with intervention services and systems.


National Center for Trauma Informed Care 
SAMHSA’s National Center for Trauma-Informed Care (NCTIC) is a technical assistance center dedicated to building awareness of trauma-informed care and promoting the implementation of trauma-informed practices in programs and services.

Working Document to Define Trauma (PDF, 12 pages)
SAMHSA has developed a working definition of trauma and key operating principles and guidance for a trauma-informed approach that can be applied across multiple service sectors to help clarify confusion and ambiguity.

The working document summarizes discussions among experts, including individuals who have experienced trauma, practitioners from multiple fields, researchers, and policymakers. The document is divided into three parts:

  • Part One: Defining Trauma provides a working definition of trauma. This section also begins to address the role of communities in the context of trauma; however, a definition or conclusive discussion of community trauma is beyond the scope of this document.
  • Part Two: A Trauma-Informed Approach provides a definition and a list of the key principles of a trauma-informed approach. This section also differentiates the trauma-informed approach from commonly confused terms, such as trauma-specific interventions and services and trauma-informed care.
  • Part Three: Suggested Guidelines for Implementing a Trauma-Informed Approach is a description of guidelines for systems and organizations to follow when implementing a trauma-informed approach. These suggested guidelines will be incorporated into a matrix worksheet for organizations to use when planning and assessing the implementation of a trauma-informed approach.

Trauma-Informed Care and Trauma Services (PDF, 27 pages)
This resource from SAMHSA answers these questions: What is trauma-informed care? What are trauma specific interventions?

Desk Guide: A Comprehensive Response to Socio-cultural Trauma in Children & Families  
This guide defines socio-cultural trauma as distinct from historical trauma or racial trauma and explores the impact of toxic stress on people living with unresolved trauma.

Tips for Parents, Teachers, and Other Caregivers for Talking with Children Who Have Experienced Traumatic Events (PDF, 4 pages)
This guide, developed by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, discusses typical responses that children and youth of specific ages may display after experiencing a traumatic event, as well as how parents, caregivers, and teachers can support recovery for young people of all ages.

1 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 2012
2 La Vigne et al., 2008; GAO, 2011; CDC, 2013; Phillips & Gleeson, 2007


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