To Help Youth with Trauma Brain, Treat Entire Family


Cathy Anthofer-FialonIn juvenile justice we have been making space to recognize and address the traumas youth have experienced. However, juvenile justice still lacks in addressing parental trauma of these youth. Can we treat, heal and prevent reoffending in a youth if we have not treated and healed the primary parent of the youth?

The juvenile justice system has evolved and continues to evolve from a mentality of accountability = punishment. The latest evolution has those of us working in juvenile justice donning our trauma-informed lenses, working to decipher what traumas may have adversely impacted the youth we’re working with. This practice is supported by research and opinion.

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The research now informing practice demonstrates that more than half of adjudicated youth report four or more Adverse Childhood Experiences. For many in the field this has provided new interventions and practices. Language is beginning to change, use of detention versus treatment is being balanced. Juvenile courts are working to make sense of trauma-brain-driven actions versus choice and accountability. The focus mostly rests on examining the adjudicated youth for trauma, treatments, healing and accountability.

However, we can’t talk trauma without talking family. We can’t talk family without actually talking to the family about the trauma experienced by the youth. The family may not be the cause of the trauma; however, family is central to healing.

Long before research supported the trauma/delinquency link, delinquency and family were only linked in theories of social control. These social control theories argue that delinquency occurs when a youth has a weak bond to society and these bonds are ultimately learned in the family.

Now science tells us differently. Now we know that a brain consistently met with adverse childhood experiences like witnessing domestic violence, not having enough to eat, having a biological parent leave or go to prison, being sexually or physically abused actually changes a child’s brain.

The child’s brain can become a “trauma brain.” This trauma brain develops after being locked in a state of fight/flight/freeze with the corresponding hormones flooding the body, impacting physiological health and mental health. Juvenile justice professionals are recognizing this reality, and the system is slowly evolving to make space for trauma.

For example, most juvenile probation officers no longer talk about “dirty” drug tests or tell a youth they are “dirty” for testing positive on a drug test. We have learned this kind of language can retraumatize or trigger a youth who has experienced abuse, especially sexual abuse. Similarly, those who work with delinquent youth are learning that trauma may contribute significantly to poor decision-making, anger, substance use and even defiant attitudes. But what is the trauma source? What is the trauma magnifier?

[Related: Report Looks At Best Practices for Addressing Trauma in Diversion]

If we only treat the trauma, but don’t consider the sources or the magnifiers, then that youth may stay locked in trauma brain. That youth may be at greater risk for probation violations or committing future crimes or even move into committing adult crimes.

We must be willing to look beyond the youth in front of us. If the adverse childhood experience originated in the family, then we must consider the family. If the adverse childhood experience originated outside the family (i.e.: adopted youth, sexual abuse originating outside the family, natural disasters), we must still address the family’s reaction to the traumatized youth.

Most importantly, we must make space for trauma members of the family may have experienced. If a parent abuses a youth, it is likely the parent was abused. Has the parent’s trauma been addressed or just punished?

We cannot expect a delinquent youth to heal from trauma if we place the youth right back into the environment where the trauma occurred, even if the trauma has stopped. For example, if a child witnesses domestic violence, science tells us that the child is more likely to have health issues, school issues, substance abuse issues and/or delinquency issues.

Even if the battered parent becomes the primary parent and separates from the abuser, we know that battered parent’s brain has probably been changed by trauma. How can an adult with a traumatized brain be the sole support for a youth with a traumatized brain? We can’t expect change if the youth is to return to a home of chaos, where the trauma occurred.

The solution lies in working with the entire family. Wrap-around services begin to address this problem. However, not all families qualify for wrap-around services. Family courts have a history of ordering family therapy to address issues in the family, which is important.

However, family therapy does not allow a parent of trauma to fully address individual issues. Research informs us: “when a mother had 3 or more ACEs, she was more likely to have mental health problems in the year after she had her baby, and she also tended to struggle with the feeling like she wasn’t a good parent.” To truly impact the negative effects of Adverse Childhood Experiences in delinquent youth, they must live in families where the adults have support to address their own Adverse Childhood Experiences and/or recent traumas separate from family therapy.

We can no longer ignore the negative impacts of Adverse Childhood Experiences and their ability to not only imprint, but steer, all future generations in a family. Work must be done to address the traumas, heal the traumas and build resiliency in all members of the delinquent youth’s family.

Dr. Cathy Anthofer-Fialon is the program manager for the 13th Circuit Family Division in Grand Traverse County, Michigan. She's passionate in moving her local community and region to become trauma-informed and active in building resilience.

More related articles:

OP-ED: ‘Trauma-Informed Care’ is More Than a Mantra

Report: Trauma Work in Connecticut Must Continue


3 thoughts on “To Help Youth with Trauma Brain, Treat Entire Family”

  1. I very much agree with the premise of this article. I believe we are beginning to appreciate how an individual’s resiliency increases when healthy connections are established and access to therapeutic resources are secured. There is still very little focus on the importance of building resiliency of the family system.

  2. Thank you for this article. It gives hope!

    I do think there is a serious omission in this sentence: “Now we know that a brain consistently met with adverse childhood experiences like witnessing domestic violence, not having enough to eat, having a biological parent leave or go to prison, being sexually or physically abused actually changes a child’s brain.” What about verbal or emotional abuse? Victims of verbal and emotional abuse suffer trauma equally to victims of physical types of abuse. Don’t leave them out of this conversation.

  3. Thank You for a very thoughtful article about the effects of trauma on children and families.
    I noticed that you appear to using the terms “trauma”, “ACES”, and “Adverse Childhood Experiences” synonymously.
    [Question]: When you refer to trauma, ACES, and Adverse Childhood Experiences, are you referring to the research known as the Kaiser Clinic/CDC’s “Adverse Childhood Experience Study (1998)”?
    The links to “research” in this article went to some articles other than which is the only legitimate source of “research” on this (Trauma/ACEs) subject.
    Please add the link to this article and please include this link in future articles about trauma and ACES to ensure proper credit to the authors of the ACE Study (1998) research.
    Thank You! James Gallant, Marquette County Suicide Prevention Coalition, Marquette, Michigan

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