Welcoming Families with a Trauma-Informed Approach

Welcoming Families with a Trauma-Informed Approach

As LA County continues on a path to re-opening, more families of young children will be heading back to work and the need for childcare will increase. We will see more child care programs re-opening and those who stayed open will be seeing an influx of children.  While this return to more normalcy is great news, we also need to be mindful of how this transition will impact children and families emotionally and logistically.

Did you know?

74% of parents and caregivers in California say the Coronavirus crisis has disrupted their home and family lives; that number increases to 79% in the Greater Los Angeles area.

We are excited to co-author this month’s Family Engagement tip with our expert colleagues at the Child Care Bridge Program! The Child Care Bridge Program provides families of foster children ages birth-5 years with emergency access to affordable child care and prepares and supports providers to work with these children in ways that are trauma-informed. Through training and coaching services, early educators learn the impact of trauma on development, how to identify trauma behaviors in children, trauma-informed strategies that support the overall development of a child, as well as strategies for provider self-care.

Sharing how to best welcome and support families dealing with the effects of COVD 19 trauma inspires our Family Engagement post for this month and next. These posts are part of our family engagement series on trauma-informed family engagement practices.

This month, we will focus on how we can welcome our families back with a trauma-informed approach while managing the effects of our own trauma.

Trauma and Trauma-Informed Care

What is trauma?

Trauma, more broadly defined, is an emotional response to a terrible event. More specifically, trauma is caused by exposure to an incident or series of events that are emotionally disturbing or life-threatening with lasting adverse effects on the individual’s mental, physical, social, emotional, and/or spiritual wellbeing.

Some examples of events that can cause trauma include abuse (physical, emotional, sexual, financial), emergencies like a natural disaster or a pandemic, or a close encounter with violence or death. From a child’s point of view, a traumatic event is a frightening, dangerous, or violent event that poses a threat to a child’s life or physical safety. 

The information below will provide basic characteristics and behaviors commonly seen in those who have experienced trauma.  As children and families re-enter your early learning programs, it is important to recognize that behavioral changes or actions, such as those listed below might be coming from a place of trauma and thus require compassionate and a trauma informed approach.

How can trauma show up in someone’s behavior? What are the effects of trauma?

According to the Institute on Trauma and Trauma-Informed Care,

  • Trauma impairs: memory, concentration, new learning, and focus
  • Trauma has been correlated to: heart disease, obesity, addiction, diabetes, autoimmune disorders, and cancer, among others.
  • Trauma impacts an individual’s ability to: trust, cope, form healthy relationships.
  • Trauma disrupts: one’s ability to identify emotions; one’s ability to self-sooth or control expression of emotions; one’s ability to distinguish between what’s safe and unsafe.
  • Trauma shapes: a person’s belief about themself and others; one’s ability to hope; one’s outlook on life.

Some important factors to consider when it comes to trauma, ourselves, and those around us:

  • What is traumatic for one person – whether they are adults or children – may not be traumatic for another.
  • It is important to recognize that not everyone is aware of their traumas and/or open to dealing with the roots or consequences of their trauma.
  • A person’s trauma is nuanced and interrelated to those around them; some may have trauma that has been documented, some traumas may not be formally recognized yet, and some may be affected by peers’ traumas.

Trauma-informed care understands and considers the pervasive nature of trauma and promotes environments of healing and recovery rather than those that may unintentionally re-traumatize.

Re-traumatization is a conscious or unconscious reminder of a past trauma that results in us re-experiencing the initial trauma event as shared by Karen Zgoda in this piece on social work. It can be triggered by a situation, an attitude or expression, or by certain environments that replicate the dynamics of the original trauma; typically, those dynamics include a loss of power, control, and/or safety.

How does trauma-informed care (TIC) help?

Since we cannot know who has experienced or is dealing with trauma, we should apply trauma informed practices broadly across the children, families, and staff in our programs.

See this diagram below for the benefits of trauma-informed spaces.

“Being trauma-informed can help us change the message from ‘what is wrong with you?’ to ‘what happened to you?’”

– Dr. Marci Gordeyko

There are many ways to care for ourselves and others who have experienced trauma in order to heal and manage what may trigger us and them. Studies have shown that the most important factor in reducing the effects of trauma in our lives is that we have loving, supportive, and encouraging adults who support us in times of need.  Child care providers can serve as those supporting individuals that our children and families need in order to mitigate the effects of trauma.

Supporting Families During and Post COVID

COVID-19 is a collective experience that has impacted everyone in one way or another, with communities of color having been especially impacted by the pandemic.  As we transition into life post-COVID, it is important to remember that every family is unique and will have experienced the pandemic differently.  Some families’ experiences of COVID-19 may have included illness, the death of a loved one, economic instability or job loss, malnutrition, homelessness and possibly family violence. Other families may have been fortunate enough not to experience these same adversities. Either way, all families experienced a loss of routine and “normalcy” and dealt with the stress of everyday life during a global pandemic, so it is important that child care providers do what they can to create trauma-informed environments for the children and families they serve.

Engaging Families – Physical Safety in a Child Care Setting

As families return to your child care setting, it is important to create opportunities for families and children to share their concerns around returning. This demonstrates to families that their voice matters and that you want to partner with them throughout this transition process by ensuring their concerns are addressed. It is also beneficial to be proactive about sharing the changes you have made in your programs and policies to ensure the physical safety of children and staff. See the table below for tips and ideas:

Ways Families Can Inform Reopening Processes

  • Host a family meeting (virtually or in-person with COVID-19 precautions)
  • Have families complete a survey to gauge questions, concerns, and ideas around returning safely
  • Host a focus group with family representatives to discuss safety procedures that would make families feel secure sending children back to your program

Ways Early Care Programs Can Communicate Updates in Physical Safety Practices

  • Take pictures of and list out health and safety changes made in program settings and share with families via hand-outs, text, email, your program website and/or social media
  • Schedule times to give family tours (virtual or in-person) highlighting COVID 19 changes made, particularly for new families
  • Record videos of your program’s new COVID-19 safety guidelines, including demonstrating how they would work

Engaging Families – Emotional and Psychological Safety in a Child Care Setting

As a way of preparing for a child’s return to your care, you may also want to ask families, privately, if there were any experiences the family went through in the past year that will help you better understand and support their child during this transition. This invites families to share with you if a traumatic experience did occur for the child, like the loss of a loved one, for example. Remain respectful of a family member’s choice to share this information or not – at the very least you are communicating that you care about the well-being of the child.

Returning to a child care setting may result in both feelings of relief and anxiety for families and children.  Some children returning to your care may experience initial feelings of:

  • Separation-anxiety after having spent over a year with their primary caregiver(s)
  • Excitement to reunite with their child care provider and see their friends again
  • More likely, children will experience a mix of these two emotions as they transition back

It is important to normalize whatever a child or family member might be feeling and to respond empathetically to each child’s unique cues.

Providing Concrete Support in Times of Need 

Lastly, it is important to anticipate that some families may need various concrete supports during this time, including access to food, shelter, clothing, health and other human services. Here are some steps you can take to help families meet their needs:

  • Partner with your local Resource and Referral Agency to ensure that you have a few local resources you can share with your families if the need arises.
  • Provide support and reassurance regarding developmental delays: Families may also be particularly concerned with potential delays in their child’s development at this time.  If this concern is shared with you, you can highlight the resilience of children that have a nurturing support system in their lives and share information about child development:
    • Resources from the Centers for Disease Control can assist families in understanding their child’s development and feel empowered to monitor their child’s growth
    • Depending on the child’s age, you can also assist families in navigating educational support services either by accessing a local Regional Center or school district.

Read our Family Engagement tip from December to explore more ways to Support Families with Concrete Support in Challenging Times.

Respecting a Family’s Reactions and Choices

With families facing choices like whether or not to get vaccinated and when or how to start socializing during this pandemic, here are 4 ways we can respect and support families:

  • Respecting confidentiality: Some families may be skeptical and concerned about the vaccines, others may already be vaccinated. These are case-by-case situations where we can strengthen trust with families by respecting confidentiality and reserving judgement so families can feel comfortable in speaking about these important safety topics.
  • Using a strengths-based lens when recognizing and understanding family reactions helps by assuming each family (1) is doing their best within their reality and (2) have something valuable to share; this primes our interactions to start on a positive, encouraging note. Families may be experiencing hesitation, anxiety, stress, etc. and it’s all rooted in families who care about their child’s well-being and are striving to do their best!
  • Validate & empower families to make their own informed decisions: Families can feel hesitation and overwhelm when making decisions related to COVID-19, particularly due to factors like institutional racism, historical inequities, negative experiences with medical establishments, and misinformation. We can support families by validating their struggles and concerns while simultaneously assuring that they have our support and providing credible information about COVID-19 safety protocols and vaccines.
    • Consider aspects like accessibility (languages, physical and digital formats), distribution (voice messages, videos, meetings, etc.), and a digestible, positive format when sharing information (colors, visuals, music, simple terms, etc.).

Happy Mixed Race Ethnic Family Walking In The Park Wearing Medical Face Mask.

Managing Second-Hand Trauma

What is second-hand trauma?

Second-hand trauma, or secondary traumatic stress, is the emotional stress that an individual can experience after hearing about another person’s traumatic experience(s).  This means that for many helping professionals, like child care providers, hearing about a child or families’ traumatic experience can negatively impact their own emotional well-being.  The stress that results from hearing about another’s trauma can ultimately lead to feelings of burn-out and anxiety, making it difficult to meet the needs of the children in our care.

What are some signs of second-hand trauma?

According to The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) some signs of second-hand trauma include:

  • Hypervigilance – extreme alertness or increased sensitivity to your surroundings
  • Inability to embrace complexity
  • Anger and cynicism
  • Fear
  • Physical ailments
  • Guilt
  • Hopelessness
  • Inability to listen, avoidance of children and/or families
  • Sleeplessness
  • Chronic exhaustion
  • Minimizing

It is important to note that the symptoms of second-hand trauma tend to mimic post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which results from directly experiencing, or witnessing first hand, a traumatic event. If an individual is experiencing extreme symptoms (as shared in the linked NCTSN resource), they should seek professional support and consider sharing this information with a trusted supervisor.

To prevent these symptoms and second-hand trauma, it is important for child care providers to stay mindful of their overall well-being and engage in strategies that promote self-care.

What is self-care?

Self-care is the ability to help others without sacrificing your own well-being.  Self-care is not a one-time “treat” that we give to ourselves only after a particularly challenging day or event.  True self-care is a proactive approach to one’s own well-being that is regularly engaged in and mindfully planned in advance. Making the time to take care of yourself, allows you to better support the children in your care. Two ways you can promote self-care are (1) practicing self-compassion, and (2) holding your boundaries.


There are three key components to self-compassion. These include:

  1. Self-Kindness and UnderstandingIt is important to be kind to yourself, especially during times of pain and what we might consider “failures”.  Telling ourselves that experiences of personal pain are not “a big deal”, or constantly criticizing ourselves for things we “could have done better”, causes stress and is the opposite of self-care.
  2. Viewing Suffering as Common to HumanityExperiencing pain and suffering is a common human experience – embracing this perspective can prevent us from feeling isolated during times of loss.  When we experience suffering directly, it is important to remember that we are not alone in this experience and make sure to reach out to share our loss with a trusted friend or family member.
  3. Allowing Ourselves to Mindfully Feel Our Feelings: It is important to acknowledge our feelings, whatever they may be, and it is equally important to allow ourselves the emotional reaction necessary to honor how we are feeling on any given day.  We often tend to create space for the emotions of the children in our care and push our own feelings aside. This dismissal of our own feelings only adds to the stress and overwhelm in our life.

How To Start?

Ask yourself: Do I show the same care and concern for myself that I show to the children and families in my care? If not, why not? How can I begin to have a kinder relationship with myself?

Ask yourself: When I experience a loss, do I seek support from others that have an understanding of what I am going through?

Ask yourself: Do I allow myself to recognize my own feelings? Have I taken the time to acknowledge the ways that COVID-19 has created a loss, no matter how big or small, in my life? Have I created the space for myself to grieve these losses?


An important part of self-care is creating and maintaining healthy boundaries. Dr. Brené Brown defines boundaries as “our lists of what’s okay and what’s not okay”. As child care providers, it is important to define our two “lists”, so that we can confidently communicate our expectations to the families we serve. When our boundaries are respected, we are less likely to experience secondary trauma.

Unhealthy or loosely defined boundaries can lead to feelings of overwhelm, frustration and provider burn-out. Some red flags of unhealthy boundaries in a child care setting include: thinking about a child(ren) outside of work hours, sharing personal phone numbers with family members, giving particular children special protective treatment or gifts, or feeling personally responsible for a child’s development.

Communicating our boundaries to the families we serve may not always be easy, but it is very important!  Some tips for setting boundaries include:

  1. Identify your red flag areas!  What behavior(s) are you not okay with?
  2. Write your boundaries down. This helps make them concrete and actionable.
  3. Be clear and direct when communicating a boundary.
  4. Stay firm! If you allow for an exception to a boundary or expectation, what are you communicating to the families you serve?

The best way to manage second-hand trauma is to prevent it in the first place!  Preventing second-hand trauma requires us to prioritize our own self-care by practicing self-compassion and boundary setting as much as possible. Check out our Family Engagement tip from January for mindfulness strategies to incorporate in your self-care!

Remember, only when we are taking care of ourselves can we adequately take care of others. Healthy boundaries ensure that we can appropriately support the child and family because all expectations have been proactively communicated in advance.

Ultimately, when we are supporting a returning or new family into child care services, it is important to remember the uniqueness of each family and child. Incorporating a trauma-informed approach enhances these transitions in a way that prioritizes both provider and family wellbeing.


Check out these encouraging and ready-to-use resources for early education programs and families.


Cristina Espinoza
Family Education Coordinator, Quality Start Los Angeles

Cristina Espinoza has worked as a family and youth development professional for 5 years, including having served as a Peace Corps Volunteer as a youth development promoter in Costa Rica. In conjunction with Quality Start Los Angeles, Cristina is passionate about supporting families to feel empowered in the changing landscape of their surroundings with their children’s wellbeing at the forefront. She is a champion of strengths-based systems and services that build resilient families and youth.