Young people who have experienced trauma are often left feeling profoundly unsafe. Trauma survivors’ perceptions of the world and other people can be skewed towards threat and danger.  Whilst an increased perception of threat can be helpful during a trauma, in the long term it can create problems as it tends to lead to avoidance and social withdrawal. Additionally some people who have experienced trauma are at ongoing risk of danger and exposure to further trauma, due to their environment or difficulties in navigating risky situations. For these reasons, it is important for a trauma-informed service to actively work toward enhancing physical and emotional safety for both the young person and staff.

Although establishing safety is relevant across all areas of your practice, the information below highlights aspects particularly relevant to young people affected by trauma.

Physical safety
Actively assess the young person’s risk of self-harm. Young people who have experienced trauma can have fluctuating or continued severe distress and significant potential for self-harm, so continued monitoring is important. Refer here for information on crisis intervention.

Actively assess the young person’s level of environmental safety and risk.  This means understanding, as far as is possible, (a) what represents environmental safety and risk taking for the young person, noting that this may be different for you and your client, and (b) what supports and skills they have to navigate risky or dangerous situations in their environment. It also means actively working towards strengthening these skills and supports, so that wherever possible you are enabling the young person to proactively manage their own safety i.e., by collaboratively developing a safety plan.

Provide safe spaces for your work with young people. This means attending to the physical environment where you meet with young people. These spaces should seek to minimise risks of re-traumatisation (for example, by being as free as possible from reminders of difficult or traumatic experiences).

Emotional safety
Establish clear roles, responsibilities and boundaries. The following points are particularly important for those who have experienced complex trauma and may have difficulties developing and maintaining relationships.

  • Be clear about limits of role with yourself, and communicate this clearly to the young person. 
  • Display consistent and appropriate boundaries. For example, don’t take ‘short cuts’ to engagement through gifts, compliments; be friendly but not familiar.  
  • Model appropriate affect modulation in your interactions with the young person
  • Don’t promise the young person something you don’t know you can deliver. For example, do not fail to call at a time that you agreed upon with the young person, do not promise outcomes within a timeframe that you can’t guarantee etc.

Maintain privacy, confidentiality and mutual respect.

  • Provide support in places and spaces that physically allow for privacy and confidentiality
  • Clearly communicate with the young person about the limits of privacy and confidentiality. A person affected by trauma may be especially concerned about the implications of any disclosure of the trauma. 
  • Whenever possible, inform the young person of exactly what information you are passing onto other parties with their permission e.g., what information is included in a letter to their GP or what might be discussed in an upcoming joint appointment with their significant other.
  • Do not talk about clients in common workplace areas, or discuss the personal issues of one client with another.

Respect cultural, spiritual & gender diversity.

  • Demonstrating respect for diversity is an important part of trauma informed care and may require you to better understand the experiences of people who have had different backgrounds to your own.
  • Sometimes interpreters may be needed for work with a client who has experienced trauma. If this is the case, be particularly mindful of how the young person may feel discussing the trauma in front of the interpreter – Would the client feel more comfortable with one gender over the other? Or from a similar religious background (especially if there are ongoing conflicts between religious groups)? Is there a risk that the interpreter will know other people in the community who know the client? 

For more information on creating a physically and emotionally safe environment, refer to the following youth AOD toolbox sections:

Creating safe, welcoming and inclusive environments

Managing aggression & potentially violent situations

Organisational considerations in fostering safety
Below is a list of some of the ways an organisation can create a physically and emotionally safe environment (Guarino, Soares, Konnanth, Clervil, & Bassuk, 2009):

  • Ensure the service has a security system, as well as well-lit common areas and surrounding outdoor areas.
  • Monitor who is entering and leaving the organisation.
  • Ensure client matters are not discussed by staff in common areas.
  • Regularly review rules, rights and grievance procedures with clients, including how the service responds to particular situations e.g. suicidal statements and violent behaviour.
  • Ensure that staff approach any client who has violated rules of the service in private.
  • Ensure every client has a written crisis-prevention plan on file that includes:
    • Triggers i.e., situations that are stressful or overwhelming and reminders of the trauma.
    • Warning signs that the client is stressed or overwhelmed e.g., behaviours, ways of responding, etc.
    • Specific strategies that are helpful when the client is feeling upset or overwhelmed, as well as strategies that are not helpful for the client and should be avoided.
    • People that the client feels safe around and can go to for support.