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What do trauma, adversity and compassion mean?

Before you continue…

The information in this section has been written for professionals. Some of the information covers difficult and distressing life experiences and the negative impact these can have on children and young people. You can choose to read on, or click here if you are looking for support for you or your child.

What do we mean by trauma?

In this context, we are using trauma to refer to the way that some distressing events or circumstances are experienced as so extreme, intense or life-threatening that they overwhelm a person’s ability to cope, resulting in lasting negative effects on mental, physical, social, emotional or spiritual well-being. This definition is drawn from UK Trauma Council, 2020 and Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration, 2012. This is a wide definition of trauma, much broader than the medical diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, because trauma responses can vary from person to person.

What do we mean by adversity?

We are using adverse experiences or adversity to refer to the distressing events or circumstances that someone has faced. An adverse experience happens to someone whilst the trauma response happens within them. This difference is important because we know that different people can have a different experience of or response to similar events or circumstances. Whilst some very extreme events would likely have a traumatic impact on any of us, at any point in our lives, with other distressing events or circumstances, the impact can depend on what else has happened in the past or is happening in our lives now.

3 Realms of Adversity Diagram

View diagram

What do we mean by compassion?

Compassion means something more than kindness or empathy. It means being sensitive to someone’s suffering and then committing to try to ease or prevent this suffering. The person who is suffering might be someone else – a child, a parent, a carer or a colleague, and so being compassionate would involve connecting with them and with what they are feeling and then doing something to try to help. But we can also think about self-compassion, which means connecting with how we are feeling ourselves and trying to do something to address our own experience of suffering. Compassion is not as easy as being nice and it can feel uncomfortable because moving towards suffering and distress can be tough.  But nor is compassion only about big actions; even if you are only a fleeting presence in someone’s life, small acts of compassion can make a big difference.

What does a trauma-informed approach involve?

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