Supporting Kids with Complex Trauma

A story from Seana Denning, Tracy McNett and Darlene Rogers

Disclosure: This post involves mention of suicide.

The recent rash of gun violence in our community is taking a toll on the youth and we are now in a season where young people are taking lives at drastic rates. Suicides amongst children and teens are spiking. The news media is flooded with daily accounts of heartbreaking and unnecessary deaths. The underlying theme to all of these senseless and tragic events is that people are feeling alone. They’re isolated. They’re feeling like nobody understands and nobody cares.

COVID has compounded these problems and has been a huge trigger for our younger clients dealing with complex trauma. It has prevented mental health agencies, like Catholic Charities Families and Community Services, from being able to provide therapeutic support where and when the services are needed. In many cases, it limits the ability for in-person intervention, evaluation and treatment.

Some of the children we work with are trying to meet with a therapist in order to deal with their traumatic experience(s). For many, it’s multiple traumatic events that categorizes them as complex trauma clients. Many are also dealing with challenging relationships within the home. Clients have had to be counseled via telehealth while at-home where the abuser or person of conflict may be present. Private, safe counseling session aren’t an option for most children we serve. As a result, children continue to struggle with severe anxiety, depression and stress. The result of not getting emotional and mental needs met often triggers suicidal thoughts and/or tendencies and can create a lot of anger in a child.

I just learned of a situation recently where a college freshman, who was studying agriculture and participating in the school’s cheer squad, jumped into the Mississippi River and drowned herself on purpose. She posted a final goodbye to friends and family via a social media post stating that living feels unbearable.

I read her farewell letter yesterday and it moved me on so many different levels. A few things struck me as poignant as I read her post. She talked about how she struggled feeling all alone this past year. She admitted to losing her connection to God. Her final remark was a request to others to check in on their “strong” friends (or perhaps those who appear to be strong) and be present to them.

Trauma is an emotional response to a threat or cause of harm. Trauma can be the result of a single event or exposure to multiple events over time. For many children and teens, a traumatic event may include: abuse (physical, emotional, mental, sexual and spiritual), witnessing domestic violence,
neglect or abandonment, poverty, foster placements or residential relocations, witnessing harm to a loved one or pet, unpredictable behaviors from parents or guardians with addiction(s) and/or mental illness.

Exposure to multiple traumatic events causes complex trauma. It impedes a child’s development and has a lasting impact on his or her life’s outcomes. Parents and guardians also have their own struggles with stress and anxiety, financial burdens, mental illness, addictions, etc. and can play a significant role in traumatic situations or events related to children.

Here are a 5-ways to support children with complex trauma:

  1. Identify trauma triggers. Make a list of trauma triggers. The primary goal is to make children who have experienced trauma feel safe and loved. In order to create a safe environment, understand what environments might trigger trauma. Troubling behaviors related to trauma should be nurtured and not punished.
  2. Validate pain. A major problem in America, and across the globe, is that when a person is suffering from mental illness or emotional pain, very often their pain is invalidated with words of support such as push through it, get over it, it’s all in your head, etc. Validating that a person’s struggles and pain are real is the first steps in helping a trouble child. Start by listening and giving your full undivided attention while using clarifying questions and rephrases like am I hearing you correctly when you state…, I can see you are feeling…, etc.
  3. Create safe spaces
    >> Attending school is a safeguard for kids. They go to school, they get their medication and meals, they go throughout their day, and then go home. Medication compliance and meals, that a parent or guardian who might not be up for the challenge, becomes less of an issue.
    >> Make a trusty tool box — that’s exactly what it is! A box full of familiar and trustworthy items that make a child feel safe and secure. It also becomes an alert to a parent or guardian that this child needs additional loving support when he or she goes to play with the items in the box. It’s the child’s non- verbal way to express his or her need for nurturing. Pack a little box, make it special with comforting toys and such that will allow the child escape for a moment and provide immediate situational relief.
    >> A social story is a way to prepare a child for the next steps. A lot of
    kids learn and feel most comfortable by receiving familiar and repetitious directions. These in-advance instructions and conversations provide a detailed outline about what to expect in an upcoming journey, whether it be a doctor’s appointment or helping a child to navigate a social situation. When new situations and settings are explained in advance and made to appear familiar to the child, because it has been explained verbally or has been shown via pictures or diagrams, it sets the stage for a comfortable setting and more successful outcome.

4. Build Trust. Trust is HUGE and a very important topic when speaking to complex trauma! We don’t gain trust on any level from talking on the phone. We gain it from developing an in-person relationship. You have to see what the kids are doing, how they are feeling and responding. They need to see what you’re doing in return. This is the primary way to build a good rapport. Who are they going call when they’re struggling? If a child is having a hard time one particular day and he or she is thinking about doing something harmful to thy self or another, who are they going call? Be that trusting connection to help that child in crisis!

Often, I receive phone calls from a partnering agency, such as a child psychologist, asking me to assist in getting a get ahold of a particular child. I’ll drive around the known neighborhood in search of the child because I know child is in crisis and needs therapeutic intervention.

A young girl was assigned to me to be her case manager, so I naturally went out to initially meet her and get an assessment. She sat stiff on the couch and only mumbled the word, “hello.” That was all she gave me and these awkward visits went on for months. I kept showing up to our visits and she continued to as well. She just sat on the couch every visit. It took a long time to finally break down her wall — to the point now where she calls me frequently from her Dad’s cell phone. She makes the call from his car, so that she has a sense of privacy. We have lengthy conversations and she feels safe to open up and tell me about things that are troubling her. Often, we chat about her parents arguing and discuss how to best handle the situation at-hand. Seeing her often, and being in communication with her parents, has allowed me the opportunity to build a trusting connection with both her and her parents.

5. It’s okay to ask for help. This is a message not only for our youth today, but also for parents and guardians, who all need to hear over and over again! People of all ages dealing with complex trauma need to know there is someone out there who they can trust and who wants to help them. Very often, our youth are in a battling relationship with their parents. Our goal is to provide children and families with enough support and a connection to people who are willing to help and eliminate the need for (and fear of a) CPS intervention, while diminishing any stigma related to mental health.

In conclusion, to all of the children and parents or guardians struggling, is okay to not be okay, because we understand. It’s okay to call us for support, because we have compassion for your situation and want to help your family. For support, please reach out to us today by phone at (585) 339–9800 x367 or via email at . For more information, please visit us online.

Here are some additional resources to explore.
 > Visit for additional resources.
 > The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 800–273–8255
 > Children’s Health Homes of Upstate NY
 > Encompass Family Health Home



Catholic Charities Family and Community Services

CCFCS is the largest provider of family services in the Rochester, NY area, addressing issues of need across all stages of life. See more: