December 01, 2014

Addressing Child Trauma: Six Strength-Based Approaches

Claire Chiamulera

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

Improve your ability to work with child clients impacted by trauma or victimization by using a strength-based approach. Kevin Powell, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist in Colorado, has spent over two decades using strength-based mental health approaches with children and families. 

Powell shared six strength-based approaches for trauma-informed services at a webinar hosted by the National Children’s Advocacy Center on September 10, 2014.

1. Meet the child’s basic human needs. 

Every person has three basic human needs:  

  • Physiological needs are those required to sustain life (e.g., water, oxygen, food, sleep).

  • Safety needs are those that help us feel safe and free from threats of harm.

  • Social needs are those that provide a sense of belonging and of feeling loved (e.g., social attachments and connections, belonging to a group and/or family). 

A child who has suffered trauma will have trouble working through that trauma if one or more basic human needs are not met. For example, a hungry or tired child will have trouble staying focused on the task at hand. A child who fears for her safety will not move past that fear and believe the world can be safe.  A child without social connections who feels alone in the world will have trouble believing others want to help him. 

When basic human needs are not met, the child’s ability to cope and tolerate stress is compromised. This often leads to a noncaring attitude and feelings of hopelessness. The child may display internalizing behaviors, including depression, anxiety, somatic complaints, and suicidal thoughts. Externalizing behaviors may include aggression, defiance towards authority, and suicidal and self-injurious behaviors. The child will also have trouble moving on to meet higher level human needs for competency and living up to one’s full potential.

Key questions to ask:

  • What needs are unmet?
  • How can I help meet those needs?
  • What motivates this child?
  • How can I help this child have successful experiences every day?

2. Strengthen the bond between youth and stable caregivers.

A stable, nurturing caregiver is very healing for a child struggling with trauma or victimization. Identify who the child feels close to, or who has the ability to provide the child needed support. Reach out and engage these supportive  parents/caregivers:

  • Be understanding, empathetic, and patient, especially if the parent/caregiver is mistrustful or defensive.

  • Put the parent/caregiver in the “expert” role. They know the child best and have useful insights to share.

  • Ask questions that invite input, don’t tell (e.g., How do you think we can best help your son, daughter, or grandchild?)

  • Use a collaborative team approach.

  • Ask parents/ caregivers about their self care (e.g., How are you doing?)

3. Promote optimism within children and caregivers.

Childhood victimization and trauma can have many problematic symptoms and behaviors that are disruptive to the child and others. However, brain research creates reasons to be optimistic about these symptoms and behaviors and the child’s ability to change. Share these reasons with children and families to promote hope.

The prefrontal cortex of the brain is still maturing. The prefrontal cortex governs executive functioning, including the ability to anticipate consequences, regulate emotions, control impulses, organize, plan and problem solve, sustain and shift attention, self-motivate, and have insight into the self and others.  Executive functioning strengthens and becomes more efficient during adolescence and early adulthood. Helping youth and caregivers understand this phenomenon can create a sense of optimism. 

The brain is neuroplastic. Brain function is strengthened through experience. Replacing problem behaviors with healthy alternatives and repeatedly practicing healthy behaviors stimulates brain pathways, which rewires the brain in positive ways. An example is a youth who self-cuts. If the youth repeatedly practices healthy alternatives to cutting, in time the temptation to cut will become less prominent as the brain is rewired for the substitute behavior. 

4. Identify and promote protective factors associated with resilience.

Resilience is the capacity to overcome childhood adversity to lead successful prosocial lives (the ability to “bounce back”). Research shows that everyone has the capacity to be resilient if they have enough “protective factors.” 

Protective factors are strengths and resources found within the child, child’s family, and the community that increase the likelihood of positive outcomes in response to risk or adversity. They act as a buffer against life stressors. Protective factors include:


  • Problem-solving skills
  • Ability to self-regulate
  • Positive self view/self esteem
  • Talents and skills
  • Self efficacy
  • Faith and sense of meaning in life
  • Positive life outlook, even  in hard times
  • Experience coping with life adversity 
  • Internal motivation


  • Close relationships with positive, supportive parents/family
  • Organized home environment
  • Caregivers involved in education
  • Caregivers who value education
  • Caregivers with individual protective factors
  • Caregivers with democratic parenting style


  • Close relationships with competent, prosocial, supportive adults
  • Connections to prosocial, rule-abiding peers
  • Romantic relationships with prosocial, well-adjusted partners
  • Ties to prosocial organizations
  • Attending an effective school  
  • Living in a supportive, protective neighborhood 
  • Living in a neighborhood with high public safety

5. Ask solution-focused questions.

Rather than focus on details of a child’s problems, explore solutions or exceptions to problems. For example, when working with an aggressive youth, ask:

  • Tell me about a time when you didn’t act out. What made you stop? How did you feel after?

  • Tell me about a time you helped someone. Why did you help? How did that make you feel?

  • Tell me about a time when you felt like hurting yourself but didn’t. What did you do to stop yourself?

6. Help the child gain insight into healthy vs. unhealthy interpersonal dynamics.

Trauma and childhood victimization can impair a child’s ability to establish and maintain healthy relationships. A history of poor interpersonal relationships is often reflected in the child’s behaviors, including disrespectful or aggressive actions towards others. Behaviors adapted over time in response to trauma or victimization may be maladaptive in the child’s current life.

One way to help children gain insight into healthy interpersonal dynamics is to help them understand the reciprocal nature of relationships. An effective tool to demonstrate the give and take in relationships is the “Throw the ball against the wall” metaphor. Using a soft ball, such as a stress ball, toss the ball to the child while explaining:

  • When we throw the ball softly, we show respectful/prosocial behavior towards others. In return, we get back respect and prosocial behavior from others. 

  • When we throw the ball hard, we show disrespect and aggression towards others. In return we get disrespect and aggression back from others.

Be prepared: even when throwing the ball softly to the child, the child will likely throw it back hard at first. Hang in there and continue to throw the ball softly. In time, and as understanding begins to take hold, the child will begin to throw the ball back softly.

These six strategies will get you started. Want more? Visit Kevin Powell’s website.


Strength-based interventions look beyond a child’s problem behaviors. They emphasize the child’s strengths and protective factors that promote resilience. They look for solutions to a child’s problems instead of dwelling on the problems themselves. They stress positive relationships and social connections that can support and help the child change behaviors. This approach creates a safe, trusting environment in which the child is more open and less guarded and able to take positive steps to address past trauma and victimization.

Claire Chiamulera is
CLP’s editor.