Supporting people in their recovery from trauma, in managing their substance use, or indeed in any area of life often means helping with difficult experiences, dangerous and risky situations and complex problems. This can mean our interactions with the young person focus on what’s going wrong, rather than what’s working well.  A ‘problem focussed approach’ might work in some situations (like diagnosing an illness), but it can communicate pessimism and contribute to people feeling stuck. For this reason, strengths-based approaches to providing support are preferred. Starting interactions with what is working well communicates to the young person an expectation of hope and a belief in their self-efficacy (i.e. the person’s own capacity to get things done). In practical ‘problem solving’ situations, this means starting with questions like “When you have dealt with situations like this in the past, what worked well for you?”

Where someone has been affected by trauma, the changes they experience in their emotions (like powerful experiences of negative moods) and beliefs (like believing that bad things will always happen to them) can make adopting a hopeful approach very difficult.  Your ability to communicate hope (i.e. that things can and do change, that people do recover from trauma), and to look for opportunities to strengthen a person’s self-efficacy are critical skills for supporting recovery from trauma. 

Working from a strengths-based approach means exploring and possibly challenging your assumptions about why people do what they do when they are struggling.  A trauma informed view of all behaviour – even challenging or risky behaviour – is that it represents the person’s best efforts to deal with the situation. It might be that the young person is using a solution that worked in the past, but isn’t as helpful now (like being aggressive), or a solution that served a protective function during the trauma, but is preventing recovery now (for example, dissociation during stressful situations).

Consider the case of Sam, an 18 year old male with aggression and substance use issues.

Sam – 18 year old male

Sam is having difficulty keeping himself out of trouble. Over the past six months he has been involved in several serious assaults, lost his job as a casual labourer after conflict with his boss, and has been charged with occasioning actual bodily harm and carrying an offensive weapon (a knife). Sam’s offending was thought to be related to alcohol and/or ice intoxication and his youth justice worker attempted to connect him to a program to manage his substance use.  Information gathered by his substance use worker suggests that Sam’s difficulties with aggression started after he witnessed a close friend being seriously assaulted (glassed). Sam had proved difficult to engage, and on the one occasion he attended the service, complaints were made about his behaviour in the waiting room by other clients. He presents as sullen and very reactive during his first session with his worker. He is visibly wound up when talking about his recent experiences with violence, and keeps re-iterating that ‘if people are going to get in his face, they are going to get what’s coming to them’.

By asking about his history of exposure to trauma, Sam’s worker was able to establish a link between witnessing a close friend being seriously injured, his feeling constantly alert and wound up and his belief that pre-emptive aggression is the only way he keeps himself safe. Providing psychoeducation about trauma and its effects is not only a powerful tool for engagement, but it offers a way of understanding the impacts of events that can start empathic conversations about change.

The sections in this trauma module on rebuilding control and supporting recovery contain strategies for helping clients like Sam to manage their anxiety, and re-evaluate trauma related beliefs. 

The table below (adapted from Hopper et al 2010) provides examples of how you might re-think some of the ways that people respond to situations from a trauma informed paradigm.

As you think about Sam’s situation, consider what might change in your work with him if you approached his case from a trauma informed and strengths based perspective. For example, you could:

  • Provide psychoeducation to Sam, as well as other significant people in his life (including other workers) about the relationship between his trauma experiences, and his recent reactions and responses to perceived threats
  • Assist Sam to identify situations and feelings that are related to his trauma and find ways to manage the feelings without using aggressive behaviour – by taking a problem solving approach, a cost-benefit approach to understanding his aggression, or a skills approach (providing different ways of managing intense feelings)


Problem focussed view

Trauma Informed View

Hypersensitive – overreacts to people and places seemingly without reason

Is reminded of trauma and this reminder is triggering powerful emotional responses – trauma reminders can be seemingly unrelated to the trauma and are highly generalizable

Unmotivated - doesn’t want to follow up employment, education, housing

Has depression and diminished interest in everyday activities, or alternatively, has PTSD and is using avoidance to manage unpleasant arousal and anxiety symptoms

Avoidant – doesn’t want to engage with their worker, avoids communication about critical issues

Over-reliance on avoidance as a key strategy for managing distress (for example avoiding reminders of trauma, or avoiding distressing emotions)

Wild mood swings, reactive mood, goes off on a ‘hair trigger’, unpredictable

Has difficulties with managing their emotions and behaviour due to trauma in early years

Aggressive, picks fights with staff or other service users, is always agitated

Is “hyper-alert” to any potential threats and relies on aggressive ways of interacting to feel in control of social situations, has a strong belief that the world is a dangerous place and to be on the “front-foot” is the only way to ensure safety

Cannot follow rules and guidelines – constantly battling with authority

Has an increased need for control in physical and social environments, past experiences of injustice have led to inflexible “black and white” views about what’s right and wrong

Seems vague, switched off or ‘out of it’ most of the time

Difficulty with remaining present (attending to the ‘here and now’) and concentrating could be due to dissociation

Refuses assistance from family, friends, services, lacks insight into support needs

Experiencing strong shame and self-blame as a result of trauma exposure and as a result of their current difficulties, also is concerned about contaminating those around them “I don’t want you to be damaged by having to deal with me”

Believes they are being singled out and treated unfairly by staff, no bonds made with staff or other service users, feels hard done by

Trauma experiences have led to difficulties with trust (“everyone is out to get me”), or a strong sense of betrayal (“everyone always lets me down”), and could be specifically relating to caregivers (“the people you should be able to trust the most are the ones who hurt you the most”).

Unmotivated to manage substance use, lacks insight into the consequences of substance use

Is relying on substances to manage unpleasant emotional responses, unpleasant memories of the trauma, or reminders of the trauma

Keeps engaging in damaging relationships

Low self-efficacy and self-esteem, difficulties recognising signs of unhelpful and potentially abusive relationships