What to Expect When Addressing Childhood Trauma in Therapeutic Settings

Working through childhood trauma can be one of the hardest things you’ll have to do. That’s why it has to start with a therapist who understands trauma work and can guide you through it safely. Once you’ve found the right therapist, you’ll work through three phases: one of safety and stabilization, one of processing the trauma, and one of reconnecting to the world around you.

The things that happen to us when we’re children can ripple outwards into our lives in volatile, unpredictable ways. Our brains are fragile, and trauma can throw their growth off the rails, causing a cascade of effects that crest into our adulthood and manifest in the form of mental health challenges, addictions, and even physical health problems.

Despite the difficulties childhood trauma presents, the mental health community has learned a lot about how to address it effectively and compassionately. One of the biggest lessons has had to do with finding the right therapist and the right therapeutic methods for each individual person. It’s your story, after all, and you deserve to tell it in the way you want to. In addition, each therapy session has to be entered into gently and with kindness, and that takes a lot of nuance on the part of the therapist. And you’ll need a treatment plan that can move the way you move and change as you need it to—one with the ability to find space for the treatment modalities that work for you and your trauma, and the door for the ones that don’t.

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What Childhood Trauma Work Looks Like on the Ground

Trauma work can be precarious and unpredictable, so your therapist will need a thorough grasp of how to lead you through it without causing harm. If you decide to do this in residential treatment, you’ll likely be paired with a therapist who specializes in trauma work—someone who truly gets the process and can lead you through it safely.

The important thing to remember is that you need your therapy to work for you, and that means that it’s okay to acknowledge it if you feel that you and your therapist aren’t the right fit. They’ll all have different styles, and one in particular may feel good to you while others don’t. Don’t give up—just talk to them directly about it, if you feel comfortable, and if you don’t, try reaching out to someone else on your treatment team (perhaps a psychiatrist or your admissions counselor) to see if there are ways that you can switch things up. You may feel more comfortable sharing with someone of the same gender, or with someone who has a particular background—like women’s issues, or drug and alcohol treatment—and it’s more than okay to be open about that.

Safety and Stabilization

Trauma work begins with a period of safety and stabilization. Ultimately, your therapist’s goal is to make sure that you understand that safety is the single most important factor in each of your sessions. If a therapist were to begin without this period, they could risk retraumatizing you by asking you to relive traumatic memories you’re not yet ready to deal with—and that’s the exact opposite of what you want to do.

Even if you feel ready to talk about your trauma from the get-go, you and your therapist will need to do some work to make sure that you have adequate supports in place before you do. That might be a list of coping skills you can use if you feel triggered during sessions (or after them), and a network of family, friends, and outside resources you can reach out to for help in moments of crisis. They can also structure sessions in ways that protect you from unintentional retraumatization by asking you to manually step away from your trauma in moments of overwhelm. Because childhood trauma work can bring up feelings of shame and self-harm, your therapist will only guide you into the next phase of treatment when they’re sure that you’re ready—because above all else, their goal is to keep you safe.

Processing and Acknowledging Trauma

Once you and your therapist have established your sessions as a place of safety, there are a number of different ways your trauma work can take shape. If straightforward talk therapy works for you, take it and run with it, but if it doesn’t, that’s okay, too.

One alternative option is Somatic Experiencing Therapy (SE)—a holistic approach to treating trauma disorders that focuses on releasing the negative energy that lingers in your body after childhood trauma. SE stabilizes trauma victims by invoking a release of energy—as opposed to trying to connect specific past events to current behaviors. Notably, an SE session may not even approach the trauma directly—just the emotions and physical sensations it creates—and that means it’s an excellent alternative for those whose trauma triggers prevent them from approaching trauma with more traditional therapeutic methods.

Another option for addressing childhood trauma is by telling your story through writing. If you feel comfortable doing so, you and your therapist can work together to write your trauma history down as a way to acknowledge that it happened, an empowering experience in which you give yourself permission to come to your trauma honestly and with compassion. Then, you and your therapist can burn the document you write it down on—a literal act of moving on without it. For many, this is a moving, cathartic way to approach traumatic memories, one that gives them the space to tell their story through their eyes rather than the eyes of parents or friends or anyone else who may have tried to take control of the narrative. Interestingly, people who engage in this kind of trauma writing experience fewer illnesses (both physical and mental) after they’ve done so, highlighting its ability to alleviate deep-rooted pain.

There’s no “right” way to work through your trauma; only ways that make sense to you, and ways that don’t. Ultimately, you need a treatment plan that can expand or contract to meet your needs, and that’s why it’s important to find a treatment provider that offers a number of other options.

A Period of Reconnection

The third formal stage of childhood trauma treatment is one in which you’ll begin to imagine a future in which your trauma doesn’t define you or dictate the choices you make moving forward. We know, it’s a pretty big task, but rest assured that it doesn’t have to happen overnight. You can take as long as you need to get there—and you should. During this process, you’ll think about how you can reconnect with people you’ve lost contact with, or build new friendships entirely—friendships that don’t feel driven by your trauma. As an exercise, your therapist may ask you to vocalize what you want your future to look like: a way of saying, “This is what I want for myself” rather than, “This is what my trauma compels me to do.”

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Individualized Care for Childhood Trauma

Trauma work is some of the toughest mental health work there is. No matter how you approach it, doing so in a residential treatment program gives you the benefit of having a network of supports at your disposal 24/7. There, you’ll have access to first-rate clinical care and a number of alternative treatment modalities to help you address your most difficult memories. With trauma work, safety is key, and there’s no safer place to do it than residential treatment, where you’re surrounded by peers and professionals who truly understand the delicacy of the work that you’re doing.

Bridges to Recovery offers comprehensive residential treatment for people dealing with childhood trauma. Reach out to us to learn more about how residential treatment can help you resolve your trauma in the ways that make the most sense to you.