For Youth Who’ve Experienced “Complex Trauma”[Part 3-Healthy Coping Strategies]

Trauma reminders or “triggers” can set off false alarms in the brain and body. For people who have experienced Complex Trauma, it can feel as if their problems are too big to manage, that they are all alone, that no one cares, or that nothing will help. When this happens, their false alarm can feel so strong that they forget safe or healthy ways to cope and turn to forms of coping that can cause more problems.

It is natural to get a little ‘off your game’ when reminded of bad past experiences. Fortunately, it doesn’t mean that you are bad, crazy or messed up. It just means that you are human. Fortunately, when we make it through bad times, we become stronger, and the fact that we survive to live another day, means that today, we ARE stronger and can exercise and own our power to dictate and determine OUR future. No matter how powerless you may have felt before, today we know better.

Just don’t go through it alone-that’s not healthy, nor is it in your best interest. Never feel ashamed or afraid to ask for help when facing difficult times or difficult decisions-AT LEAST SOME TIMES. Professionals or people who understand how complex trauma works can show you ways to help things get better. Even others who have had similar experiences can help to recognize your triggers, and help you tap into your strengths and resilience. Aside from complex trauma therapies, here are some strategies that can be used to help make things better.


There are ways to increase your safety in life and relationships. Sometimes you may feel like things will never change because you’ve experienced complex trauma for so long. By talking to people you trust, teacher, therapist relative, you can learn ways to feel and be safe.

  • Learn how to recognize unsafe situations, then identify and practice ‘exit’ strategies-to leave the situation safely.
  • Learn whom you can trust, and who will give you the best advice or guidance if in an unsafe situation, and need help. You don’t have to figure things out alone.
  • Take inventory of your relationships, and ask yourself how do you know who is safe. Violence and abuse is not always physical, as it can be emotional, and if that’s the case, you are not safe.
  • Explore how you can feel safe in your own mind and body. What helps you to replace negative or frightening thoughts? What helps to calm you and makes you feel in control? Trust yourself and learn when your body or mind tells you to get out of a situation, stand up for yourself or get help.

Remember, love is not supposed to make you feel less than good, smart, capable, and it doesn’t take your control away from you or take control of your body in ways that make you feel sad, scared or tense all the time. No one wants to feel that way, and when you learn to manage your emotions, energy level and behavior, you give yourself more choices and get more control over your life.


  • Begin to recognize your trauma ‘reminders’ or triggers,. Learn to know the things that remind you, like the way someone talks to you or the way someone looks at you.
  • Identify your feelings, figure out what you are feeling and where you feel it. For instance, when you are nervous, or mad, does your heart beat really fast? Do you feel it in your stomach? Your body sends messages to your brain that are used to identify your emotions. Then you can change the feelings in your body so you have to feel that way.
  • Practice communicating your feelings to a caring and trusted person in your life in ways that they may ‘hear’ you and want to help you. Avoid holding everything inside or blaming someone you care about. Let people know how you feel.
  • Find ways to let go of hurtful feelings or thoughts, or just express your feelings. Try journaling, drawing, listening to music, yoga or exercise.
  • Try new coping skills to see which ones help. Discover which help when you feel bad about yourself, have low energy, lots of energy…which work best for different feelings.



Everyone needs people in their lives, and although complex trauma may mean that those who were supposed to protect and have your back didn’t, don’t give up on people altogether. While it’s good to be careful about who you choose to trust, don’t believe that you can trust no one.It is easy to give up and expect the worse from others, and you may even start to put up with things from others that you shouldn’t. There are some things you can do to help.

Relationships with siblings, adults, peers and even coworkers take work. Some of us prefer to have one or two good friends, and some prefer lots of people. Find people who care and whom you can go for support, have fun with, feel safe with, and who will have your back when things aren’t going well. The skills you need to build good relationships with others are:

  • learning how to make and maintain safe and healthy connections,
  • knowing what you want from other people,
  • understanding what you want and can give to other people.


  • Take a close look at all of your relationships. What have you liked and not liked in each one? Ask yourself is this a relationship I can count on, how do I act when in this relationship, and am I proud of the person I am?
  • Decide which are worth continuing and which may cause problems or hurt you. Look at examples of good relationships- described in books, TV and movies and try to picture a good healthy relationship. How would it feel, look like? Example: the type of people in your life now- friend, mentor, caregiver…Which or what do you need more of?
  • Do you have enough sources of support? Comfort, for advice, fun, a good listener, someone to lend you a hand when needed? You don’t need one person for all of these, for it may take several people to meet different needs.
  • Practice your relationship skills with people you already count on. It may be a therapist, sibling, or relative. When you feel ready, practice with two people you want to know better that maybe you hadn’t thought of before. A co-worker, family member, people your age or others you may trust.
  • Think about building new relationships and friendships. Find something that you like to do that others may like and find out if they want to do it with you. Look for opportunities to try new activities or go new places that seem fun and safe and introduce yourself to new people. It takes great courage, but you can do it. If you’re unsure about a new person or group of people, ask someone you trust to think it through with you.


Many youth who have experienced complex trauma spend alot of their timew jusy getting by from day to day. This is exhausting and may mean having more bad feelings than good ones. Good feelings- excitement, pride, hope, vuriosity- won’t erase the bad ones, but they help you get through them. Everyone deserves joy in their lives. Look for places or people to do fun things with. Recognize positive things about yourself and people and things around you.

  • Take a look at what is getting in your way. Often things outside of ourselves get in the way-family obligations, finances. Often there are things inside of us that get in the way-feeling guilty, uncomfortable feeling happy, you don’t deserve good things, or even hopelessness.
  • Find things you’re good at and do them. Take pride in your efforts. Feel good about working toward something. Sports, dancing, music, art, singing, gardening, fixing things….
  • Learn how to do one thing at a time. Pick one thing to focus all of your attention on. Do it for two minutes. Start with concentrating on slowing your breathing, and breathing from your stomach. If you find your mind wandering, don’t feel bad, just try again. The more you practice the better you’ll get. Practice doing one thing at a time and it will get easier for you to stop worrying about bad things and focus on good things. Positive thinking works!
  • Make a list of all the things you like to do and would like to try. Make it as long as you can. Choose those that seem almost impossible and those that are immediately available.



When people live through a lot of bad stuff and not enough good, they learn to react first, think later and focus on survival. Over time, this can become a habit and feel like the only way to live. We can forget all about our dreams, wishes, goals. People who have experienced complex trauma may not have had time to develop their goals and the only future they imagine is more bad stuff or no future at all. They can, however, learn to envision a better future, feel more powerful, think through difficult situations, and make good decisions that solve problems and improve their lives.

  • Learn to understand and cope with your emotions. Don’t just get rid of your feelings, but take control over them. You want to size up a situation, figure out your choices and make a good decision instead of making them worse by acting on impulse like avoiding them altogether or succumbing to them as though you have no choice. We always have choices, even when it seems there are none. Every situation presents options, including doing nothing or walking away. Hard to figure out the right or best solution sometimes, muster up courage and have no fear in asking for help. You may feel better after seeking the guidance or advice from someone whom has been given your trust.
  • Explore yourself, who you are, what matters to you, and what you want to be in the future. If there are limits to your dreams and goals, you don’t have to abandon them- just adjust them a little. You can still get to your goal. What you do well, what interests you and makes you feel good or happy-identify these things that hold meaning for you. Understand which experiences have influenced, good or bad, the person you have become today. Make sense of your history, even if they get in your way. Learn to manage your responses to reminders of things in your past takes time, and that may require help from someone who makes you feel safe.
  • Even the hardest times can lead to development of new strengths in people who survive therm. Take inventory of your strengths developed thus far. You have many! You can be and are resilient!
  • Exploring your experiences, life history, look at the whole you, not just the past or parts that make you feel bad, hurt… It can help build the strongest you.
  • Others can give you the tools to cope, spark the strengths you don’t know you have, but its up to you to take it from there. Keep going!

Never give up imagining a brighter future for yourself, even when all seems hopeless. You’ve got to fight through the hopeless feelings. You can’t change everything, but you can find good things that make living your life worth it. Change your response to that which you can’t change and focus on changing that which you can. All of this happens as you focus on you, and the best you will accept and understand the difference. Then you can dream bigger, better, brighter-your future can still be bright!



Know yourself, who you are, and your strengths. In life, we each can grow, build capacity, and increase our strengths. We are more positive than not, and those who care will accept you for all you are.

We live for today and plan for tomorrow, knowing more than we did yesterday. We are stronger, better, wiser, and the past doesn’t have to dictate the future, no matter how it seems that it always will-only if you let it. Don’t let it take away your joy! Give yourself a chance to be happy! Give people a chance to be a part of your happiness. Just know that you learned from past mistakes, build on your past successes, and be your best self. You are a gift to the world!



The New York Times’ Race/Related series published an interestingly thought-provoking article this week to focus and highlight a select group of college-bound high school students whose backgrounds and aspirations are as diverse as each individual.  Each featured student demonstrates the power of both resilience and determination in influencing life trajectory and all presented through spoken word and poetry.  Perspectives shared by these young people were featured excerpts from a project, Handwritten, and performed at the Bronx Library Center in April.

Read their stories by following the link below. We all have a unique story that, upon sharing, may unlock doors for someone by hearing yours. Life is but a series of doors and stories provide keys to unlock many of them.

Continue reading ““TO WHOM IT SHOULD CONCERN:””

For Youth Who’ve Experienced “Complex Trauma”[Part 2-Coping]

There are many ways to cope with stressful experiences and many things people can do to relieve stress, decrease tension and anxiety, and make their bodies feel calm and in control. Sometimes people intentionally use strategies to help them cope.



They practice specific skills, actively work to relieve or reduce their stress, and shift energy to a more comfortable level. Then there are times when people do things more instinctively impulsively or automatically taking steps to change the way they feel, many times without realizing it. Whether on purpose or not, many coping strategies are going to be very helpful for some and not so much for others. Also, some strategies people use to manage overwhelming feelings or release energy can be very powerful, but also very destructive, addictive, or significantly increase risks of negative outcomes over time. Let’s look at how some strategies used to cope with stressful experiences and feelings can cause additional problems for youth.

****These are examples of what some youth do and some of the reasons they say that they do them. For you, the reasons might be different or you might have other ways of dealing with bad things that happen. Or you might see yourself in some of these examples even if your situation is different. While these coping strategies can cause problems, they show up in many youth who have lived through Complex Trauma, and they were often part of what helped someone to survive trauma. These strategies do not constitute the full range of available options for you or anyone you may know in an attempt to cope with feelings associated with Complex Trauma.

(In Part 3, we will explore healthy coping strategies that won’t increase the risk for destructive outcomes.)

Difficult situation

What I may do to get through it or cope

How it can cause problems for me

Physical Violence or Abuse

Pay really close attention to what others feel or want and try hard to make sure they are happy.

I put the needs of others ahead of my own. Sometimes others use this to take advantage of me.

Learn to fight really well and always be ready to fight.

I get into a lot of fights. I think others want to fight me even when they really don’t.

Learn not to feel pain so I can “take it” and just wait for it to be over.

Sometimes I can’t feel anything at all— painful or good feelings.

Sexual Abuse

Get “out of” my body.

I have a hard time staying in the present. I go off in my mind and miss what’s happening around me.

Learn to use my sexuality to try to control what will happen with others.

I flirt a lot and try to get others to have sex with me. I use sex to get friends or approval. At times, people this to take advantage of me.

Learn to use sexual feelings or sex to make myself feel better.

I touch myself sexually a lot, even when I’m not in private. Or I have sex with a lot of people. People use this to take advantage me. I have caught diseases because of it.

Learn to use affection or physical contact to comfort myself and try to get people to love and care for me.

I hug people I’ve just met. When I make a new friend, I want to touch and hug and tell them I love them a lot. Sometimes people start to avoid me or complain, and I get in trouble with adults for having “bad boundaries.”

Keep my distance from others to avoid getting intimate or sexual.

I avoid relationships with others that may lead to anything sexual so that I won’t be taken advantage of again. I feel lonely a lot.


Get whatever I can when it is available and hold on to it.

I get in trouble because I steal, sometimes even when I don’t need or want to.

Take care of myself and don’t rely on others to meet my needs.

I have a very hard time asking for help or accepting help.

Develop ways to keep myself from feeling lonely, like watching a lot of TV, reading, playing video games. Do things by myself a lot.

I have a hard time making friends or relating to people. People sometimes think I’m “weird” or “different.”

Develop “imaginary friends” to comfort me when I’m hurt or upset.

I sometimes have trouble separating my “imaginary” world from the “real” world.

Eat as much as possible.

I eat too much or when I’m not hungry.

Difficult situation

What I may do to get through it or cope

How it can cause problems for me

Emotional Abuse

Hide my needs and feelings from others. Make myself “invisible.”

I don’t tell others how I feel or what I need. Sometimes I don’t know myself or don’t have words to describe my feelings.

Learn to be tough. Don’t let anything get to me, but if it does, keep it to myself.

I have a hard time trusting people. I’m alone in this world and can only count on me.

Work really hard to please and take care of other people, instead of myself.

Others take advantage of me, and I feel like I don’t matter.

Pay close attention to what upsets others and try hard not to upset them.

I believe I’ll never be good enough. I try too hard. Other people use me.

Give up and stop trying to be good. I try to become the person I’ve been told I am.

I do things that I know are wrong and get myself into trouble a lot.

Lots of Different Kinds of Trauma

Use drugs or alcohol to not feel or to feel better.

I sometimes do things that I later regret, or I don’t do things I’m supposed to do.

Take on the responsibility to care for or protect a parent, a sibling, or a friend.

I try to keep people safe but cannot. I try to help and care for people but end up failing and letting them down. I get blamed when things go wrong. I am attacked and pushed away when I try to keep the people I care about from making bad choices.

Engage in extreme risk-taking to feel alive, in control, tempt fate, or take charge of “what’s inevitably going to happen anyway.”

I injure myself. I experience a temporary high or rush, then I crash, experience a huge letdown, and get really depressed and hopeless. This leads me to seek out the next, bigger risk.

Hurt myself.

I damage my body to punish myself, to show others my pain, to make myself feel better, or to distract myself from emotional pain.

Hurt others.

I ruin relationships because I’m afraid to get close to someone and risk getting hurt. I hurt others to deliver justice, to make me feel less helpless, to show them how it feels.

For Youth Who’ve Experienced “Complex Trauma”[Part 1]

so what feature

                       What is ‘Complex Trauma’?

Youth grow up in many different kinds of families and neighborhoods. When things go well, they have grown ups in their lives who look out for them, show them love, and help them grow up to be healthy and strong. However, sometimes the grown ups who children and adolescents are supposed to be able to count on to help and protect them say or do really mean or hurtful things, or just aren’t able to take care of them.

Life experiences matter—good, bad, and everything in between. As we grow up, both the things that happen and those that don’t happen affect us. Some youth don’t think what happens really matters. How about you? Some people think children and adolescents are supposed to get over what happens to them even if it’s something really horrible. But for many youth, things keep bothering them long after they happened.

A Traumatic Experience Versus a Lifetime of Traumatic Experiences

street fight

There is a profound difference between a traumatic experience, like a car accident or a hurricane, or  a complex trauma occurring when lots of dangerous or hurtful things keep happening over and over again, like sexual abuse, bullying, or neglect. We have many different names for these kinds of things: stress, tragedy, adversity, and trauma. None of these words really capture the difference between what it’s like to deal with one or a couple of bad things that happened, versus living with lots of terrible things happening all the time.

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

girl-stressAfter going through a traumatic event, many youth (and adults) have a hard time forgetting what happened. Sometimes they have nightmares, or can’t stop thinking about it. They can get jumpy or tense, feel afraid that the bad thing will happen again, or lose interest in things they used to like to do. These responses to trauma are normal, and aren’t just “kid” problems: they happen to athletes, soldiers, police officers, firemen, and parents. Sometimes it gets better on its own. When it doesn’t, and people keep getting triggered by things that remind them of what happened, this is called PTSD.

Complex Trauma

fireballSometimes, young people grow up with a lot of bad things or hardly any good things, or both. And sometimes the same bad things happen so often, youth might think that this is just how life is. There could be trouble at home, like grown ups fighting all the time or not giving children things they need like enough to eat, warm clothes, hugs, words of encouragement, or praise. Sometimes, things are bad in a way that hurts young people on the inside, where no one can see, like when grown ups, older siblings, or peers are constantly saying terrible things about them, threatening them, or getting mad and blaming them for things that are not their fault. Some youth live in scary neighborhoods where it never feels safe outside their home.

It can be really hard when bad stuff starts to pile up. Many children and adolescents feel like there’s no one around to fix things, and no one in their corner. They can feel afraid, sad, or mad a lot of the time, or blame themselves for what’s going wrong. It can also be hard to trust people when you never know if someone is going to let you down, disappear, or attack you all of a sudden. If you feel like people don’t care about you, you might start thinking you deserve the bad things that happen. Instead of feeling loved and special, you might not feel good about yourself.

You might feel like you’re really different from other people and like you don’t fit in, especially if you see others having good times with their families and having grown ups they can count on. It might feel like you’ll never be good at anything no matter how hard you try, and you want to just give up. It can feel really hopeless. When youth feel like this, it usually doesn’t get better on its own. Sound complicated? You bet. That’s why it’s called Complex Trauma.

Complex Trauma can affect people in lots of different ways. Children and adolescents with Complex Trauma often have negative thoughts, emotions, or beliefs about themselves or the world. They might have uncomfortable feelings in their bodies from living with constant stress. Living a traumatic life can make it hard for young people to have healthy relationships or imagine a good future.

Even when bad stuff happened in early childhood and was supposed to be “over” years ago, the effects of Complex Trauma can last a really long time. This can be confusing and upsetting for teens and even young adults who still feel hopeless, unhappy, stuck, lost, or unsafe even though everything is supposed to be better and different now. This can create a lot of pressure and shame, especially when adults start to get impatient, frustrated, or blame youth for not trying hard enough to change. The important thing to remember here is that this is exactly how Complex Trauma works. The good news is that you don’t have to go through it alone, and you shouldn’t go through this alone- SEEK HELP! It helps!

 Part 2 will focus on strategies youth use to cope  with stressful experiences and feelings that may cause additional problems.