How Compounding Trauma Affects Youth

Young people are experiencing trauma in different ways, from peer to peer violence and pressures to witnessing ongoing community violence and racial injustice. These types of trauma, coupled with a global pandemic, may cause feelings of distress and uncertainty. And in uncertain times, it is natural to search for things that make us feel safe and connected.

Because traditional, safe spaces for connection may be unavailable right now, teens may turn to an unhealthy space to build those connections. High risk environments may include gang violence, illegal drug use or engaging with adults who intentionally cross boundaries online.

When we experience toxic stress and compounding trauma, our brains are in survival mode and do not necessarily thinking logically. During survival mode, teens and adults alike will move toward where they feel a sense of comfort and security. This could be a space where young people have built trust or common ground with other individuals, even though the space isn’t necessarily safe.

How Resilience Can Be Misinterpreted
Resiliency can be defined as being resourceful in moments of stress and crisis. However, we often see a slanted version of resilience in pop culture and on social media. For example, media may portray a resilient person as someone who is extremely independent and doesn’t ask for help. Additionally, younger people may see resilience in the form of memes or posts that read, “positive vibes only.” It’s important to clarify that resilience is not this perceived idea of extreme independence and strength. Rather, resilience is about vulnerability and connection.

As an adult, think about how you define resilience in your mind. Be aware of your own life experiences and recognize that the young people in your life have their own unique experiences. When speaking to a young person, approach them with curiosity. Be open to their reflections about what space they are in now, and what some safer options might be.

How Adults Can Be Supportive
If you have safety concerns about where teens are seeking connection, remove judgement. Don’t shame and blame them for seeking connection in these spaces. When discussing trauma, it’s normal to want to say, “You’ll get through it” or “Some people have it a lot worse,” but this is dismissive of their lived experiences. Other statements to avoid include:

  • “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps and get over it.”
  • “You’re so strong, nothing keeps you down.”
  • “I made it through worse – it builds character”
  • “Don’t you think you’re being a little dramatic?”
  • “You’re so sensitive.”

Instead, focus on honoring their feelings and experiences. Supportive statements include:

  • “You’re right, it is really hard when…”
  • “I’m here for you if you’d like to talk more.”
  • “I hear you – it’s tough to…”

Dr. Dan Siegel is a renowned expert on the brain, resilience, and relationships. He coined Name It To Tame It, which is a step-by-step approach to help kids manage big emotions, such as fear, anger or grief.

Practice Active Listening
Before having a conversation with a young person in your life, remind yourself that all feelings are valid and young people may need support in navigating appropriate behaviors in response to feelings. If you have safety concerns about where that young person is seeking out connection, remove judgment. Instead, try this:

  • Approach with curiosity by asking open-ended questions.
    • Tell me about how this person/group/ app is important to you?
    • How do you feel when you are with this person/ group/ app?
  • Practice listening to understand, opposed to listening to respond.
  • Pause to hear them.

We must honor what young people in our community are doing to survive, even if we don’t necessarily agree with it. The best thing you can do to help them through adversity is to be a safe, healthy adult. This is achieved by fostering open communication that feels non-judgmental. For additional information that focuses on resilience after community violence, please visit The Columbus CARE Coalition at  

For resources on children’s mental health, visit


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