Understanding Secondary Trauma

Working in the early learning field, it is essential that you are aware of and understand the impact of secondary trauma. Secondary trauma is sometimes called compassion fatigue and it can occur when educators support children and families who have been directly impacted by a traumatic event.

Traumatic events are those that disrupt a family’s sense of security and safety. Traumatic events include everything from the death of a loved one to natural disasters to experiencing homelessness, just to name a few.

Secondary trauma is the result of the indirect exposure to trauma and can occur after prolonged exposure or even a single incident. According to the Administration for Children and Families, signs that someone may be experiencing secondary trauma include changes to attitudes, behaviors, and physical health such as:

  • Lowered concentration
  • Apathy
  • Rigid thinking
  • Perfectionism
  • Numbness
  • Helplessness
  • Hyper-vigilance
  • Sleep and appetite changes
  • Body pains
  • Immune system issues

The first step in combatting secondary trauma is awareness.  From there, educators can put in place strategies to help address the issue.  Many of the strategies are related to establishing a healthy work-life balance and practicing self-care. These terms are often scoffed at as being impractical, however, they are essential for preventing burnout and addressing trauma.

Educators and program leaders must create supportive working environments that encourage self-care, not as a frivolous practice but as one that is vital to the continued mission of the program.  Ideas include:

  • Maintaining a healthy lifestyle (diet, exercise, adequate sleep, etc.)
  • Stress relieving activities (time in nature, meditation, journaling, etc.)
  • Creative outlets (art, music, dance, poetry, etc.)
  • Support (peer-to-peer support, counseling, outside support groups, therapy, etc.)
  • Celebrating (recognizing efforts and successes, taking time to identify what is working, etc.)
  • Ongoing education (workshops, speakers, online learning, etc.)

To download a factsheet on secondary traumatic stress, click here.