Understanding Trauma-Informed Care in Social Work

Most people go through a traumatic event at some point in their lives. Think of instances like a loved one passing away unexpectedly or a young child dealing with the burdens of living in poverty. Social workers work closely with people in various circumstances every day on the job. However, some social workers fail to consider trauma when handling clients, leading to misdiagnosis and mistreatment of trauma and trauma-related symptoms. In this article, we shall explain what trauma-informed practice looks like in social work.

Let’s begin by defining trauma-informed care. In a nutshell, it is an approach that understands and considers the pervasive nature of trauma. This approach promotes environments of healing and recovery while avoiding practices that may re-traumatize a person. Therefore, trauma-informed care in social work means understanding what caused certain behaviors in the first place rather than jumping straight into finding solutions for problematic behaviors on the surface level.

Guiding principles of trauma-informed care

According to the CDC, six principles serve as a framework for how social workers, other service providers and care systems can perpetuate trauma-informed care. The principles can be applied in different contexts, as we shall explain below:


A social worker should ensure that the client feels physically and emotionally safe. For instance, it would be a good idea to meet in a comfortable, welcoming area that upholds their privacy. Keeping appointments in the same place promotes consistency and a sense of safety in predictability for the client.

Empowerment and Choice

It is essential to recognize that every person’s experience is unique. The client and family members should also have their personal feelings, opinions, and choices considered and allowed to influence and control the care situation. A social worker can enforce this principle by informing clients and their loved ones about their rights and responsibilities and offering choices concerning their care wherever possible.

Trustworthiness and Transparency

Trust is vital in social work, and it might take time to build, especially for clients who have experienced trauma. Therefore, social workers must be patient and constantly reaffirm their good intentions through their words and actions. You can do that by being clear about tasks and maintaining professional boundaries.

Peer Support

Peer support for trauma survivors is rooted in providing a way for people from diverse backgrounds who share experiences to come together and build relationships. Peer support creates a feeling of support and mutual understanding and can reduce feelings of isolation. This is good for both the physical and mental health of the client experiencing trauma. 

Collaboration and Mutuality

Collaboration and mutuality mean making decisions with the individual, instead of making choices for them. As a social worker, you don’t want to suggest you hold all the power. For instance, you can work with the client to create an intervention plan that works for them.

Cultural Issues

A social worker must recognize and eliminate potential biases to establish effective trauma-informed care. This can be achieved by identifying a client’s needs and ensuring their care meets these. For instance, a woman dealing with the aftermath of sexual assault might only be comfortable receiving care from a female social worker. The potential for re-traumatization from the lack of sensitivity to cultural, racial, or any other biases is a primary concern when it comes to trauma-informed care. 

Gain skills to provide trauma-informed care in social work

Are you an aspiring social worker? You can gain skills to help trauma survivors by enrolling in the MSW advanced standing programs at Cleveland State University. You will gain hands-on experience and a greater understanding of the impact of diversity and unique lived experiences. With these skills, you can go out there and create a lasting impact on society.

How to practice trauma-informed social work

As a social worker, you can always expect to encounter trauma survivors. Therefore, it is vital to understand how to practice trauma-informed social work. It is worth noting that this approach requires constant evaluation, attention, and sensitivity. Here are some tips.

Understand the impact of trauma

Inarguably, the effects of trauma are complicated and personal. There are so many factors that determine how an individual handles their trauma, such as cultural norms. For instance, men under patriarchy might feel pressured to remain “masculine” when emotional. Therefore, as a social worker, you must approach every situation uniquely. It is also worth noting that the effect of trauma is not limited to mental health. An individual’s mental health also influences other aspects of an individual’s health, such as blood stress and heart rate. Therefore, you must look beyond their mental performance to provide comprehensive solutions.

Screen for trauma

You might meet clients unaware of the link between their behavior and past trauma. For instance, someone with anxiety might not be aware that it was triggered by a past encounter. Another might not recognize that their low self-esteem is linked to a history of abuse. You might provide inadequate or misaligned treatment if you don’t recognize trauma symptoms. It could also lead to additional mental health problems.

Through screening, you can gain insight that will help you provide individualized care. Typically, screening and trauma assessment go hand in hand, ensuring the process is well-defined and comprehensive.

Develop cultural competence

As we mentioned earlier, cultural competence is one of the guiding principles of providing trauma-informed care. Therefore, it is incredibly important for you to understand cultural issues as a social worker. That way, you can address trauma through a culturally informed lens to forge stronger connections with your clients. Cultural competence can also help you choose the correct language to communicate effectively and avoid triggers. 

You will need to confront your personal biases, conscious and unconscious, in your quest to become culturally competent. You can also actively participate in other cultures to learn about them. Perhaps attend a cultural festival or a local protest group. Most importantly, practice active listening without attempting to persuade them towards your point of view.

Create a safe space

Creating a safe space for trauma survivors is central to providing trauma-informed care. This is especially true if you invite your client to confront their trauma. An excellent place to start is providing a space with no environmental stressors. You also want to build emotional safety. You can do so by building trust, fostering transparency, and promoting empowerment with your clients.