Beyond Youth Custody

Childhood trauma and offending

Pippa Goodfellow
Beyond Youth Custody programme manager

For a recent piece in Children and Young People Now, Pippa talks about how improving awareness of childhood trauma can help youth justice practitioners rehabilitate young offenders.

Not only are traumatic experiences very common in the backgrounds of young offenders, but the impact of these experiences can narrow their life chances.

Many who offend have often first been victims themselves. But with the right support, even young people with some of the most negative stories of childhood and adolescent trauma can be helped to access opportunities and re-shape their futures.

Young people who have experienced trauma need appropriate support to guide them through the criminal justice system in order to address their offending behaviour. Only by ensuring trauma is identified early, and through equipping staff to respond with appropriate support, can the system ensure that it does not hinder young people’s chances of moving on from crime.


Trauma-informed practice

Trauma-informed practice may involve awareness raising and training, the provision of safe environments, reducing the scope for re-traumatisation and the coordination of provision designed to increase resilience and support. Trauma-informed approaches can be thought of as incorporating three key elements: an understanding of the prevalence of trauma; recognition of the effects of trauma both on those affected and on those who work with them; and the design of services which are informed by this knowledge.

There are four key features of trauma-informed approaches:

1. Staff awareness, training and support

Trauma-informed practice involves equipping key staff with knowledge about trauma and its effects and supporting them in their work with potentially traumatised young people – both by ensuring that there are mechanisms in place for individual monitoring and by promoting integrated teamwork.

Staff working intensively with young offenders should be assisted in building their own psychological resilience – mapping out their own vulnerabilities and strengths and protecting themselves against vicarious trauma. It is important to acknowledge that particular young people may generate some negative feelings in staff, including frustration, despair and anger. Staff need to be able to disclose and explore their emotions in a supportive environment in order to manage their feelings effectively.

2. Effective assessment

As trauma and mental health problems more generally are likely to influence the success of resettlement work, young people’s mental health needs should be systematically screened for, and responded to, with timely provision of appropriate specialist support. Structured mental health assessments should inform the planning of interventions with specific assessment for post-traumatic stress disorder, abuse and significant loss among violent offenders potentially beneficial if done carefully. Assessment of need should ideally be linked to decisions about accessing support, rather than being part of a more general approach to fit young people into services that are available.

3. Engaging with young offenders

Awareness of trauma and its effects can usefully inform understanding of young offenders’ challenging behaviour and can assist decisions about appropriate responses. Violent or aggressive behaviour can sometimes be learnt by traumatised young people rather than indicating a lack of discipline or an absence of motivation to change. Punitive or reactive responses may then entrench problematic behaviour rather than address it, whereas support to build optimism, confidence and commitment can be more effective.

It is important to openly acknowledge both the degree of adversity faced by young offenders and the specific challenges in adapting to new situations. Developing trust between young people and staff is important in order to help them overcome poor coping responses that may undermine the effectiveness of any interventions.

4. The therapeutic window

Psychological interventions are most effective when provided during a “therapeutic window” – this is the stage when the young person is ready to address their difficulties. There is a delicate balancing act between exposing them to challenges that promote psychological growth while ensuring that those challenges are not so powerful as to reactivate the initial trauma and further diminish their capabilities.

Practitioners need to exert careful control over the psychological intensity of their work with a carefully managed, sequential approach to individual progress. Young people need to be given the opportunity to consolidate their psychological development before moving on to more challenging goals.

Impact of the right interventions

By addressing the emotional and psychological needs of young people, services can enable them to better manage their emotions and behaviour as a first step towards making other long-lasting positive changes in their lives. Trauma-informed approaches that seek to build young people’s strengths and attachments can help to minimise the impact of their traumatic experiences, reducing the likelihood that they will continue to engage in high-risk and anti-social behaviour.

With more insight into how traumatised young people behave, staff can work more effectively with them, thereby helping them to gain an understanding of their behaviour, take responsibility for themselves and develop negotiated, positive relationships.

For further information, access BYC’s research report and practitioner’s guides on this subject

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Resettlement of young offenders: informing practice, improving outcomes