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A fundamental part of trauma therapy treatment for youth is providing education about post trauma symptoms and reactions. Understanding the various effects of trauma can help normalize post-traumatic symptoms as being a normal reaction to an abnormal event, and combats the shame, blame, and stigmatization that youth often feel after experiencing a stressful life event. To reduce post trauma reactions and symptoms, the reactions/symptoms must first be identified, labeled, and understood as such. During the therapy process, it can be challenging to help youth and their caregivers properly and comprehensively identify post-trauma reactions, especially when much of the process is done verbally. This could potentially have a negative impact on the effectiveness of the treatment being provided. The Trauma Reaction Cards were developed to appeal to a youth’s developmental stage and needs and are an engaging, visual, and interactive tool which can assist in the identification of trauma reactions that may not otherwise be recognized, labeled, or targeted. The cards are categorized into the four domains of trauma reactions: Emotional, Cognitive, Behavioral and Physiological. The therapist can then use the information gleaned to tailor mental health treatment to reduce the client’s unique post-trauma symptoms.
I developed the Trauma Reaction Cards in my work as a youth trauma therapist after identifying that there existed a lack of age appropriate resources to assist trauma therapy for children and adolescents. Given the unique developmental needs of youth, and their natural affinity towards visual and play-like interventions, I realized that any useful intervention would need to incorporate these facets. Because the foundation of trauma treatment builds upon the labeling and understanding of a youth’s unique trauma reactions, I decided to build a tool that would help simplify the concept of PTSD while being visually appealing, engaging, and developmentally appropriate. I specifically chose images and wording that would be easily understood and resonate with individuals who have experienced trauma without being overwhelming. I then made an accompanying Trauma Reaction Cards Checklist which clinicians can use to record the endorsed trauma reactions while also monitoring for symptom reduction over time.
The Trauma Reaction Cards provide leadership to other organizations and mental health youth agencies by encouraging systems to view a child’s negative behavioral and emotional reactions through a trauma lens. By using this tool, agencies can see more clearly that the focus should not be on what is “wrong” with a child, but on what has happened to the child. It educates systems in the four areas of PTSD symptoms in youth, while also normalizing reactions which often are stigmatized or disproportionately assigned to children as being a fault of character or due to not trying hard enough to “be good.”
This tool is sustainable in that it can be utilized repeatedly with a variety of children, adolescents, and families and by a variety of helping professionals. School guidance counselors, pediatricians, psychiatrists, intake workers, hospital social workers, children and youth workers, and treating clinicians can all use this to help address the effects of trauma on youth and their families. Community Behavioral Health (a nonprofit 501c corporation contracted to provide mental health services for Philadelphia County Medicaid recipients) has already been an active partner in disseminating this resource to organizations within its child trauma provider network throughout the city. In addition, researchers from the Beidas Lab at the Center For Mental Health Policy & Services Research at the University of Pennsylvania have expressed interest in implementing a collaborative research project focusing on the usefulness of this innovative tool in helping children heal from trauma.
The Trauma Reaction Cards and accompanying Trauma Reaction Card Checklist can be used across a multitude of disciplines, institutions, and organizations. Due to its simple but effective guidelines, it can be replicated with consistency amongst psychotherapists, psychiatrists, pediatricians, school guidance counselors, intake workers, hospital social workers, and children and youth workers. These various institutions and settings can use this therapeutic innovative tool to educate youth and families, explore possible PTSD diagnoses, enhance psychotherapy, reduce stigma, promote awareness, and/or help determine appropriate referrals for trauma treatment. Depending on the role and focus on each institution, the tool can be adapted to meet their individual need.
The outcomes of the Trauma Reaction Cards and accompanying Trauma Reaction Cards Checklist are the identification, exploration, and ultimately reduction of PTSD symptoms in children and adolescents. By first normalizing trauma reactions, and then eliciting a youth’s specific trauma reactions, a therapist can tailor treatment to addressing the youth’s specific identified areas of concern. When used by other helping professionals, it can provide diagnostic and/or further referral insight into whether or not a child who has experienced trauma may have PTSD and may need specific trauma focused mental health treatment.