Secondary Trauma: Who is at risk?
speaking, persons at risk for developing
secondary trauma are those who have the
responsibility of providing care to a person
who has had some type of crisis.
Historically, persons at greatest risk were
those in the emergency services professions:
police officers, fire fighters, emergency
medical technicians, police officers, fire
fighters, nurse crisis workers, and clergy.
In recent years that list has expanded to
include a wide range of professionals who
work with children and families in crisis.
Included in that list are pediatricians,
psychologists, psychiatrists, family
lawyers, adult mental health professionals,
child protective services workers, prison
guards, juvenile probation officers, foster
parents, and teachers.
There are several reasons
why professionals working with maltreated or
traumatized children are at increased risk
of developing secondary trauma.
1) Empathy is a
valuable tool used by mental health workers,
educators, childcare providers and other
professionals working with traumatized
children. Children get better in therapy not
because we talk to them or at them, but
because we are emotionally there for them.
However, by empathizing with a child or
"feeling their pain" the professional
becomes vulnerable to internalize some of
the child’s trauma-related pain.
Recovery Time: Professionals working
with children and families are often
required to listen to children describe some
very horrific situations they have
experienced. These same professionals are
secondarily traumatized by having to listen
to the same or similar stories over and over
again without sufficient recovery time.
3) Unresolved Personal
Trauma: Many professionals have had some
personal loss or even traumatic experience
in their own life (e.g., loss of a family
member, death of a close friend). To some
extent, the pain of experiences can be
"re-activated." Therefore, when
professionals work with an individual who
has suffered a similar trauma, the experience
often triggers painful reminders of their
4) Children are the
Most Vulnerable Members of Our Society:
Young children are completely dependent on
adults for their emotional and physical
needs. When adults maltreat these vulnerable
persons, it evokes a strong reaction in any
person with a sense of decency and morality.
At times, the senseless and almost evil
nature of some of the trauma inflicted on
children shakes one’s sense of humanity.
5) Isolation and
Systemic Fragmentation: New research and
clinical wisdom point to the important role
of group cohesiveness in regulating
individual stress reactions. When
individuals feel valued and are in the
presence of others who respect and care for
them, they are more capable of tolerating
extreme stressors. Clearly this means that
the current practices in child protection,
mental health, probation and education -
specifically, individual service delivery
rather than team-oriented practice within a
fragmented system with high-turnover - are a
set up for increased stress for individuals
working in that system.
6) Lack of Systemic
Resources: A lack of economic and
personnel investment in front-line services
for high-risk children exacerbate each of
the problems listed above. In our current
socio-political climate, no public system is
likely to address adequately the issues
related to development of secondary trauma
in front-line personnel. The task of
addressing these problems then falls to
the mid-level leader, supervisors, program
directors and others who are working to
create a positive work-climate for their