For Youth Who’ve Experienced “Complex Trauma”[Part 2-Coping]

There are many ways to cope with stressful experiences and many things people can do to relieve stress, decrease tension and anxiety, and make their bodies feel calm and in control. Sometimes people intentionally use strategies to help them cope.



They practice specific skills, actively work to relieve or reduce their stress, and shift energy to a more comfortable level. Then there are times when people do things more instinctively impulsively or automatically taking steps to change the way they feel, many times without realizing it. Whether on purpose or not, many coping strategies are going to be very helpful for some and not so much for others. Also, some strategies people use to manage overwhelming feelings or release energy can be very powerful, but also very destructive, addictive, or significantly increase risks of negative outcomes over time. Let’s look at how some strategies used to cope with stressful experiences and feelings can cause additional problems for youth.

****These are examples of what some youth do and some of the reasons they say that they do them. For you, the reasons might be different or you might have other ways of dealing with bad things that happen. Or you might see yourself in some of these examples even if your situation is different. While these coping strategies can cause problems, they show up in many youth who have lived through Complex Trauma, and they were often part of what helped someone to survive trauma. These strategies do not constitute the full range of available options for you or anyone you may know in an attempt to cope with feelings associated with Complex Trauma.

(In Part 3, we will explore healthy coping strategies that won’t increase the risk for destructive outcomes.)

Difficult situation

What I may do to get through it or cope

How it can cause problems for me

Physical Violence or Abuse

Pay really close attention to what others feel or want and try hard to make sure they are happy.

I put the needs of others ahead of my own. Sometimes others use this to take advantage of me.

Learn to fight really well and always be ready to fight.

I get into a lot of fights. I think others want to fight me even when they really don’t.

Learn not to feel pain so I can “take it” and just wait for it to be over.

Sometimes I can’t feel anything at all— painful or good feelings.

Sexual Abuse

Get “out of” my body.

I have a hard time staying in the present. I go off in my mind and miss what’s happening around me.

Learn to use my sexuality to try to control what will happen with others.

I flirt a lot and try to get others to have sex with me. I use sex to get friends or approval. At times, people this to take advantage of me.

Learn to use sexual feelings or sex to make myself feel better.

I touch myself sexually a lot, even when I’m not in private. Or I have sex with a lot of people. People use this to take advantage me. I have caught diseases because of it.

Learn to use affection or physical contact to comfort myself and try to get people to love and care for me.

I hug people I’ve just met. When I make a new friend, I want to touch and hug and tell them I love them a lot. Sometimes people start to avoid me or complain, and I get in trouble with adults for having “bad boundaries.”

Keep my distance from others to avoid getting intimate or sexual.

I avoid relationships with others that may lead to anything sexual so that I won’t be taken advantage of again. I feel lonely a lot.


Get whatever I can when it is available and hold on to it.

I get in trouble because I steal, sometimes even when I don’t need or want to.

Take care of myself and don’t rely on others to meet my needs.

I have a very hard time asking for help or accepting help.

Develop ways to keep myself from feeling lonely, like watching a lot of TV, reading, playing video games. Do things by myself a lot.

I have a hard time making friends or relating to people. People sometimes think I’m “weird” or “different.”

Develop “imaginary friends” to comfort me when I’m hurt or upset.

I sometimes have trouble separating my “imaginary” world from the “real” world.

Eat as much as possible.

I eat too much or when I’m not hungry.

Difficult situation

What I may do to get through it or cope

How it can cause problems for me

Emotional Abuse

Hide my needs and feelings from others. Make myself “invisible.”

I don’t tell others how I feel or what I need. Sometimes I don’t know myself or don’t have words to describe my feelings.

Learn to be tough. Don’t let anything get to me, but if it does, keep it to myself.

I have a hard time trusting people. I’m alone in this world and can only count on me.

Work really hard to please and take care of other people, instead of myself.

Others take advantage of me, and I feel like I don’t matter.

Pay close attention to what upsets others and try hard not to upset them.

I believe I’ll never be good enough. I try too hard. Other people use me.

Give up and stop trying to be good. I try to become the person I’ve been told I am.

I do things that I know are wrong and get myself into trouble a lot.

Lots of Different Kinds of Trauma

Use drugs or alcohol to not feel or to feel better.

I sometimes do things that I later regret, or I don’t do things I’m supposed to do.

Take on the responsibility to care for or protect a parent, a sibling, or a friend.

I try to keep people safe but cannot. I try to help and care for people but end up failing and letting them down. I get blamed when things go wrong. I am attacked and pushed away when I try to keep the people I care about from making bad choices.

Engage in extreme risk-taking to feel alive, in control, tempt fate, or take charge of “what’s inevitably going to happen anyway.”

I injure myself. I experience a temporary high or rush, then I crash, experience a huge letdown, and get really depressed and hopeless. This leads me to seek out the next, bigger risk.

Hurt myself.

I damage my body to punish myself, to show others my pain, to make myself feel better, or to distract myself from emotional pain.

Hurt others.

I ruin relationships because I’m afraid to get close to someone and risk getting hurt. I hurt others to deliver justice, to make me feel less helpless, to show them how it feels.


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