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Trauma and Resilience

"Violence leads to more violence, hatred to more hatred, death to more death. We must break this cycle which seems inescapable.” (Pope Francis, "Fratelli Tutti," 221)

The term "trauma" describes the range of possible and typical responses people may have to an extreme and overwhelming event or series of events.

While many readers may be familiar with the psychological diagnosis of “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder,” it is important to recognize that trauma responses are normal experiences and are inextricably connected to broader social contexts and relationships.

Because restorative justice seeks to repair relationships, a trauma-informed approach is not only compatible with, but essential to engagement.



Healing Justice Film Trailer

Forms of Trauma

There are many different types of trauma: direct, indirect, individual, collective, vicarious/secondary, participatory, cultural, generational, and institutional.

When unhealed, trauma can manifest in various forms of “acting in” (i.e., causing harm to oneself) or “acting out” (i.e., causing harm to others). Restorative approaches create opportunities for breaking free of these cycles of violence through acknowledgment and reconnection.

These components of restorative processes create opportunities for healing and build resilience among individuals and communities.

Breaking Cycles of Violence and Building Resilience (Click for PDF)

Taking Trauma Into Account

There are complex interconnections between people's life experiences, opportunities, choices, chances, and personal histories, including trauma histories. When understood in more broad and nuanced ways, it becomes evident how unhealed trauma and histories of victimization, marginalization, and disempowerment can present as violence or wrongdoing in need of intervention from the criminal legal system.

Meanwhile, many attest that involvement with the criminal justice process can cause retraumatization and further harm. These social realities must be taken into account when developing more sensitive, effective, and responsive trauma-informed approaches to the harms caused by crime. 

Being trauma-informed means being cognizant of the ways that trauma impacts the whole person — emotionally, spiritually, physically, and cognitively.

There is now growing evidence and awareness about the ways that trauma (particularly early childhood trauma such as abuse and neglect) affects a person developmentally and physiologically.

It is then only logical that these experiences can interfere with establishing peaceful, respectful, and equitable relationships. A trauma-informed perspective, then, also allows for the development of interventions and strategies that rebuild these abilities to connect. 

Trauma-informed approaches to restorative justice aim to: 

  • Develop responses and processes that take into consideration the vulnerabilities and needs of survivors of traumatic events.

  • Deliver programs and services in a way that avoids inadvertently retraumatizing people and doing further harm.

  • Assist in the construction of richer narratives about traumatic events, their effects, and their resolution.

  • Allow for the creation of more psychologically literate and nuanced accounts of what happened and why, the nature of the harms, the nature of trauma, and resolving the traumatic impacts.

In the Catholic context there is a particular need for those in ministry to commit to our own trauma healing work, so that our unhealed trauma is not transferred upon those we aim to accompany.

Here, restorative practices themselves can play a role in contextualizing and making meaning of our own histories of victimization.5 This also includes interrogating, acknowledging, and repairing when we as individuals, as communities, or as institutions have been a source of harm or trauma.



Reflection Questions

  • It is often said that “hurt people hurt people.” How does a lens of trauma and resilience help us honor the human dignity of all those involved in a harm?
  • What forms of trauma impact the lives of those your ministry accompanies? How can restorative justice approaches foster breaking free, acknowledgment, and reconnection?
  • What experiences of trauma shape your own approach to ministry? What may be needed, in your own life, in order to meaningfully engage from a place of resilience?
(5) Novak, M. J. (2020). Forming Restorative Justice Practitioners: Learning to Make Meaning of our Trauma Exposure Response. University of St. Thomas Law Journal, 17(1), 43.  file:///Users/restorativejustice/Downloads/Novak%20-%20Final%20(1).pdf
Content contributors to this section included Merwyn DeMello and Mary Novak.