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  • Brian Van Brunt

Trauma Informed Approach, ACEs and Beyond

Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) include past interactions such as bereavement, survivorship, adult responsibilities as a child, mental illness in the household, parental divorce, emotional or physical neglect, violence in the home or community, having a family member attempt or die by suicide, substance use problems in the household, and instability due to parental separation or household members being in jail or prison. These are linked to chronic health problems, mental illness, and substance use problems in adolescence and adulthood. ACEs can also negatively impact education, job opportunities, and earning potential. Dr. Nadine Burk offers more on ACES in her video, Understanding ACEs.

Current research has suggested additional items beyond the traditional list provided above. These include intergenerational and cultural trauma, like the displacement and genocide of indigenous people, slavery, and the Holocaust, systematic and institutional racism, and discrimination based on race, ethnicity, gender identity or sexual orientation (such as LGBTQ+), religion, learning differences, or disabilities. When we grow up around certain behaviors, they become normalized, and we are at a higher risk to continue these patterns. Examples include drinking, smoking, choosing violent partners, accepting, or engaging in abusive behaviors.

Understanding past trauma experiences and how they affect how someone might process interview questions, classroom material, case studies, or examples is often referred to using a trauma-informed approach. Adopting a trauma-informed approach involves:

  • Collaboration: Making decisions with the individual and sharing power

  • Safety: Ensuring physical and emotional safety

  • Choice: Acknowledging the individual has choice and control

  • Trustworthiness: Clarity and consistency on tasks and with boundaries

  • Empowerment: Prioritizing empowerment and building skills

A Trauma-Informed Approach

Adopt Cultural Humility

In this process, an individual puts their own experiences and worldview temporarily on hold to better take in the perspective of another person. It is a process of reflection, critical awareness, and a commitment to learn and grow from other’s perspectives, backgrounds, cultural and experience. This practice also requires a historical study and understanding of how violence, oppression, and other negative factors have impacted a marginalized group.

Gain Perspective

Perspective taking allows for an individual to gather contextual information about what is occurring, particularly with regards to violence and oppression.

Control Actions and Reactions

How we react is crucial, as we can deescalate a situation or reengage, retraumatize, create fear, and initiate further coping skills/trauma responses.


Accept individuals as people and not just the trauma they’ve experienced or the coping skills they’ve adopted. Recognize emotional, cognitive, and social age are not the same.

Recognize Pain Points

Attend to potential pain points when working with individuals to better anticipate negative reactions. When discussing sensitive topics, take the time to pause and check in to see how they are feeling about the conversation. Often, our goals become our main focus and we become distracted from taking their emotional and cognitive pulse.

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