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May 25, 2017 Practice Points

How to Avoid “Secondary Trauma” as a Family Law Practitioner

By Rita M. Aquilio

As family law practitioners, we work daily with clients, many of whom are traumatized, distressed, and suffering, frequently causes us to experience secondary trauma. Simply put, secondary trauma is “burnout”: the stress resulting from helping or wanting to help those that are suffering. Practitioners must be aware of the effects, symptoms, and strategies for dealing with it.

Secondary trauma can result from assisting distressed adults, children and/or families. Symptoms may be physical (e.g., exhaustion), psychological (e.g. depression), or can even take the form of a behavioral pattern (e.g., drug or alcohol abuse). Unfortunately, due to the nature of our cases, family law practitioners are more susceptible to developing secondary trauma than practitioners who work in other areas of the law. Unlike a transactional matter or a case with finite issues, family law matters continue for months, or even years, with a higher level of emotional intensity.

To manage secondary trauma (and possibly avoid burnout), practitioners must be able to recognize the symptoms. Practitioners who are “at risk” of the effects of secondary trauma can avoid them by simply educating themselves. You must also be aware that, in certain studies, our profession has been found to experience more secondary trauma than even mental health providers or social service workers. A best practice to lessen the chance of secondary trauma is to identify, at the initial client interview, the complexity of the case and create a plan to diffuse any difficult situations (e.g., the use of alternative dispute resolution or a collaborative approach), and to assess whether your client might benefit from an individual therapist.

Family law practitioners of any level of experience can benefit from managing secondary trauma in their day-to-day practice. By staying “ahead of the curve” and educating yourself regarding strategies for dealing with difficult situations and traumatized clients, you can maintain a high quality of work and life.

Rita M. Aquilio is a member with Norris, McLaughlin & Marcus, P.A., in Bridgewater, New Jersey.

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