Maryland Positive Behavior Support Training

Being Sensitive to Past Trauma

Three people talking together at a table. The person facing the camera is listening intently.

Everyone experiences trauma at some time in our lives. The memories we have of these events often are tied to an immediate and strong emotional response. Sometimes a person who is responding in anger or anxiety may be remembering a past trauma. The response may be triggered by sounds, conversations with others, current events, times of the year, or items in a setting that may remind a person of these traumatic memories. If we respond by ignoring the person’s signs of trauma, acting out in anger, or trying to stop a person from expressing themself, we can increase frustration, sadness, or anger and re-traumatize the person. A person-centered response to trauma involves active listening and the ability to understand and share what another person is feeling.

Sometimes we see a behavior that appears to be problematic. Our first response may be to call attention to the negative act because we feel that the behavior is showing disrespect towards us. It is important to understand that a person who has experienced trauma may be responding to events, people, or activities that remind them of negative experiences from the past. These behaviors are not meant as disrespect towards you. Sometimes it is not clear right away that someone is responding in a way that reflects these past experiences. When you understand that an emotional response is not being directed at you, you are able to focus more on helping people to process their feelings.

Examples of Traumatic Experiences

  • Natural disasters (wildfires, tornados, hurricanes, floods, severe drought, pandemics)
  • Domestic or sexual violence (experiencing aggression or abuse from another person’s actions)
  • Neglect or abuse (situations where substance abuse, mental illness, or other issues result in a child not receiving a normal upbringing)
  • Police arrests experienced by the person or someone close to them (family members, friends, relatives)
  • Death of someone close
  • Health crises (experiencing emergencies related to health or wellness of others)
  • Experiences related to microaggressions, implicit bias and inequities related to racism, and
  • Historical events that have impacted cultural groups over a longer period of time resulting in trauma (residential schools where indigenous families were forced to send their children, slavery, holocaust, etc.)