Are you wondering how trauma-informed language can affect your work with clients? What about your online marketing?
It’s important to use trauma-informed language so you don’t trigger your clients or retraumatize them. Further, language is powerful for shaping how your clients view themselves, and can aid or hinder the therapy process.
In this blog, you’ll discover why trauma-informed language is so important, understand the trauma-informed philosophy, and see useful examples you can use this week.
First off, what is trauma?
What is trauma?
According to renowned addiction expert Dr. Gabor Mate, trauma is when something that shouldn’t happen does, or something that should happen doesn’t.
Examples of this include physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. But this definition makes room for neglect: not being held enough, not being encouraged, and other forms of neglect.
To add another lens, let’s add meditation coach Julien Blanc’s definition of trauma: “anything that was overwhelming or that was too much for us to handle at the time.”
Based on this definition, everyday situations could be traumatic – being teased for having a crush in 2nd grade, embarrassing yourself in public, being told not to sing, and more.
One important aspect that keeps trauma stuck is not having anyone to talk about it with. Yet, trauma can compound if we have to keep it inside and never share it with another person. Did you know that trauma affects 70% of people at least once in their life? And severe trauma, such as community violence, abuse, car accidents, and war, can cause Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Ok, we’ve done a brief overview of trauma. Now, what is trauma informed language?
What is trauma-informed language?
Trauma-informed language refers to the way we communicate with and about individuals who have experienced trauma.
Using trauma-informed language, therapists can avoid causing unnecessary pain to clients.
“I always check in with my clients about their readiness to discuss their experiences with trauma” says Dianna Calderon-Triminio, LMHC:
Trauma-informed means that we’re aware that clients may have faced trauma, and how we talk to and interact with them matters.
Being sensitive to the traumas of others, we have ways to talk to and about clients that avoid causing pain as much as possible.
Here are a few things to consider when aiming for trauma sensitive language:
- no labels – “victim,” “perpetrator,” “addict”
- no judgment – “lazy,” “unmotivated,” “aggressive”
- no jargon – “compulsive patterns,” “disorganized attachment,” “countertransference”
Trauma-informed language is about speaking in a way that avoids making your clients’ problems flare up or get worse. It’s also about putting the human first, not the trauma they experienced.
By controlling the way we talk to and about our patients, we make it safer for them to make progress in their mental health goals.
Why is trauma-sensitive language important?
Trauma-informed or trauma-sensitive language is important for a few reasons.
For starters, it’s less triggering than other commonly used language.
Second, it’s important that you don’t label your clients, for them and for you. When we label clients, that’s a cause for shame. Labels carry shame and can cause you to think of them in less human terms. Instead of “trauma victim”, you can think of them as “someone who’s gone through a traumatic event.”
Third, trauma-informed language is important because it puts the human first, rather than their trauma. You can see this in the example above.
Finally, trauma-informed language communicates to our clients that they have agency. They can do things to get better. If they were a victim, that’s a much bigger hurdle to get over. But they aren’t “victims”. They’re capable “human beings who went through a tough situation”.
I asked Dr. Christopher Deussing for his take on using trauma-informed language. Here’s what he said.
Now let’s get into some more examples.
An example of trauma informed language is
If you’re looking for examples that you can use today, this section is for you. Here are some examples of trauma-informed language (before we get into the trauma-informed mindset).
- “Trauma victim” vs. “Person who has experienced trauma”
Notice that the emphasis in the second phrase is on the human who had the experience. It’s important to emphasize your client’s humanity and not the painful experience that they went through, such as abuse.
- “Victim” vs “Survivor”
This one has some nuance. Depending on your client’s healing process, it can be more fitting to use the word “victim,” especially in the early phases of therapy. Just keep in mind, releasing feelings of victimhood and transitioning to being a “survivor” is the goal, so don’t stay at “victim” forever. Calling your client a victim could feel less fitting after a certain stage in their healing process.
- “Safe” vs “Comfortable” or “Pleasant”
This example comes from Rose Elizabeth, LCMHC.
As you can see, trauma-informed language isn’t always what our first instincts might tell us.
Non-trauma informed words vs trauma informed words
Continuing with some examples, I’d like to reiterate that what makes something traumatic depends upon the person who experienced it. As Resilience Coach and TRE® Provider Sarah Giencke puts it,
When I asked Sarah for an example of trauma-informed language, she said:
Here are a few more examples that you can borrow for your time with clients.
- “Committed suicide” vs. “died by suicide”
Suicide is often caused by mental health issues such as depression. When people say “commit” it implies complete culpability, ignoring the fact that mental health is a significant risk factor for suicide. Using “committed suicide” could be very triggering for friends and family members.
- “That didn’t happen. You’re making this up.” vs. “I believe you.”
When therapists express disbelief in something a client says, it causes harm to the client. Often, those who have experienced trauma are not believed when they tell someone, or they have a fear this may happen. Not believing your client causes more feelings of pain and isolation, and can hurt their outcome.
- “You’ve been acting like this for a while now” vs. “I’m here for you and you can take as much time as you need to feel better”
Expressing urgency that your client gets better places pressure on them to feel a way that they simply don’t. For healing to be thorough and effective, clients should be given as much time as they need.
I trust you to recognize when language is trauma-informed versus when it is not. So, here is a list of more uninformed phrases and their trauma-informed counterparts. Just remember to use words and phrases that keep your client’s humanity in tact.
Trauma informed language guide
In the following list, traumatic language is on the left and trauma-informed language is on the right.
“Did you fight back?” vs “This wasn’t your fault”
“People are bad” vs “people are doing the best they can”
“Are you sure?” vs “That must have been very difficult for you”
“Are you serious?” vs “I’m so sorry that you had to go through that”
“Were you drinking at the time?” vs “This should not have happened to you”
“Non-compliant client” vs “client who is doing the best they can and needs additional support or safety”
“I think you should report this immediately” vs “what action makes sense for you in this moment?”
“You need to prevent this from happening to others” vs “the important thing right now is supporting you to feel safe”
Use these phrases and others that you come up with to handle your clients traumas with care and gentleness.
The Trauma-Informed Mindset
Ok, let’s zoom out now and talk about the mindset behind trauma-informed language. Using the following information, you can more easily make trauma-informed language a part of how you speak to and about your clients.
Being Open to Feedback
Because language affects everyone differently, you’ll need to be open to feedback. If you use a word that your client doesn’t like, help them feel safe expressing this to you, then change it. Have an open-door policy when it comes to talking about trauma and which words and phrases you use.
Play It Safe
As I mentioned above, 70% of people will experience a traumatic event in their lifetime. It’s best to assume that someone has experienced trauma until you know for sure. Either way, being gentle in your therapy approach is unlikely to be a bad idea.
Listen, Affirm, Support, and Connect
Trauma can isolate anyone. So make it a little easier for your clients to talk about their trauma. Listen to them, affirm their experiences, support them emotionally, and connect them to resources that can help them recover. Keeping your focus on your client and how their trauma affects them is the most important thing.
Your Website Messaging
Go over your website. Look for any words, phrases, or images that may be triggering to someone who’s experienced trauma. Avoid pictures that can remind your site viewers of commonly traumatic experiences. Clean up your messaging to be more gentle. If you need help with this, contact me.
Beyond Language: Tone, Rhythm, and Body Language
As important as the words you use, is how you use them and your body language. Convey a tone and overall stance of compassion, support, and understanding with your nonverbal communication. Open your body to your client rather than crossing your legs or arms. Take the time to study body language and implement it with your clients.
“Safe Eyes” vs “Hard Eyes”
Along the same lines, be sure to use “soft eyes” when dealing with trauma. This just means to relax your eyes and not use any penetrating or intimidating glances at your client. It’s hard enough to open up; don’t make it harder with “hard eyes”.
Allow Clients to Decide
As a therapist, you want to help your clients. So, it can be tempting to nudge your client towards decisions that could help them. However, this is often experienced as disempowering for your client and can lead to resentment. Instead, guide them through their options and help them come to a solution that feels good for them.
Keep these ideas in mind and you’re a long way towards trauma-informed communication!
Conclusion and Things to Remember
To conclude, trauma-informed language is a necessary component of trauma-informed care. It emphasizes empathy, support, and respect for the individual’s humanity, experiences and boundaries. Trauma-informed language helps create a safe and supportive environment for your client’s healing and recovery. Use trauma-informed language in your work with clients when applicable.