Protective and Coping Factors

While exposure to complex trauma can adversely affect child development across multiple domains of functioning, the degree of the trauma's impact can change as the child is exposed to different stressors and developmental challenges.  Various protective and coping factors, including the child’s supportive relationships, self-esteem, and social competency, will affect how each child fares when exposed to trauma.  These factors, whether they are individual factors or family and environmental factors, can help buffer the effects of trauma, strengthening the child’s resilience and competence across various domains of functioning.

Understanding these protective and coping factors is critical to the child welfare practitioner’s ability to respond appropriately to children exposed to trauma, and is key to implementation of trauma-informed practice.  It is the responsibility of caregivers, child welfare practitioners, and other professionals to instill and/or enhance these factors in trauma-affected children to the greatest degree possible and set them on a pathway to healing.

Individual Factors

There are a variety of critical individual protective and coping factors, or traits, that relate to a child’s resilience and ability to cope with adverse events such as maltreatment and trauma.  Many maltreated children possess some of these traits to some degree.  They include:

  • Social supports, or well-developed interpersonal skills, and the ability to secure and maintain a circle of nurturing, supportive adults. Research suggests that strong interpersonal relationships may provide the best defense in coping with stress or trauma.
  • Involvement in validating experiences. Children who participate in experiences such as art, music, outdoor activities, and volunteering, are provided opportunities for success and validation, which helps build feelings of worthiness and lessen the effects of trauma.
  • Healthy self-esteem. A good self-concept and regular experiences of positive emotions promote resistance and resilience to the effects of trauma.
  • Adaptability. Flexibility in perspective, beliefs, and emotions is a protective factor against adverse experiences.
  • Aptitude. Resourcefulness and intellectual mastery can help mitigate the effects of trauma.
  • The ability to think rationally. This ability, which enables children to make sense of the actions of others and brings logical, clear ideas about their experiences to the forefront, is a factor in mitigating trauma.
  • Positive temperament. A positive temperment provides the ability to see things in as favorable a light as possible and helps children cope with the effects of trauma.
  • Positive beliefs about the world. Children who perceive the world as fair, safe, and predictable are generally better able to withstand the effects of trauma.
  • Degree of mastery and autonomy. When children feel that they have a sense of power and control over their lives, they can better deal with traumatic events.

It is important to remember that these protective factors interact differently in different children, and that some trauma-affected children can function fairly competently in some social and emotional areas but not in others.

Family and Environmental Factors

Unlike a child's individual factors, which are protective and coping factors intrinsic to the child, family and environmental protective and coping factors refer to factors that are generally outside of the child's control, such as the available extended support network.  These factors, which relate to a child’s resilience and ability to withstand trauma, include:

  • Positive attachment and connections to emotionally supportive and competent adults within the family or community. Parents or other significant adults who can provide emotional support and understanding can significantly increase a child's ability to cope effectively with trauma.
  • Socioeconomic resources. Children from families with adequate resources are much more likely to have fewer stressors than children from families with inadequate resources, and it is also likely that parents with adequate resources will be more able to provide support and resources that children need to mitigate trauma.
  • Ties to extended family. These ties can provide a child with additional supportive resources from a trusted network of adults and help mitigate the effects of trauma.
  • Caregiver/parental capacity to provide the child with a secure base and a secure attachment relationship. A child with a secure attachment will have more cognitive and emotional resources for dealing with trauma than a child with insecure attachments.
  • Caregivers/parents who are able to effectively manage their own response to the child’s trauma. Caregivers who stay calm, supportive of the child, and focused on meeting the child’s needs rather than their own provide an important defense against the negative effects of the child's trauma.
  • Caregivers/parents who believe and validate the child’s experience. Knowing that someone understands and cares about what has happened to them greatly increases the child’s ability to cope with adversity.
  • Availability of community supports. Accessible community social organizations that promote healthy child development are valuable resources to children dealing with adverse situations.
  • Communities that send a clear message of behavior and events that are acceptable. Children and caregivers who recognize clear boundaries of acceptable and non-acceptable behavior feel more supported in dealing with trauma.

These family and environmental protections help mitigate the effects of maltreatment and trauma experiences for a child.  However, like individual protections, the family and community supports are present in different degrees for different children, and their interplay in a specific child is complex and varied.