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What is trauma?

The CDC defines it as ““[a]n event, or series of events, that causes moderate to severe stress reactions, is called a traumatic event. Traumatic events are characterized by a sense of horror, helplessness, serious injury, or the threat of serious injury or death. Traumatic events affect survivors, rescue workers, and friends and relatives of victims who have been directly involved.”1

There are various types of trauma.  Trauma can range from individual (such as a person getting into a car accident) to large-scale (such as a category 5 hurricane passing through an area).  Trauma can be emotional, physical, or psychological.  Lawyers must have challenging conversations and deal with of life’s most difficult moments.  Lawyers see multiple challenging situations and often serve as an emotional lifeline for clients when the clients are at their worst.

Traumatic experiences undermine a person’s sense of safety in the world and create a sense that catastrophe could strike at any time.

Trauma is a bio-psycho-social experience, affecting a person physically, mentally, emotionally, and socially.

[1] Source: Helping Patients Cope With a Traumatic Event, CDC [ SH6H-MJAM].

How does trauma impact family law?

Likening lawyers to firefighters, where do fires occur and how do lawyers address them?

Clients often experience trauma in family law when the legal system itself or professionals involved in the legal system further burdens them or even causes harm in already challenging situations.

Toxic stress can traumatize a person.  There are three levels of stress:  positive stress is normal and an essential part of healthy development – such as the first day of school or taking a test.  Tolerable stress is when the body’s stress system is activated for a longer-lasting challenge such as a natural disaster or experiencing a frightening injury; however, there is an adequate support system.  Toxic stress is when a person experiences strong, frequent, and/or long-lasting difficult events like emotional abuse or a caregiver’s substance abuse and there is an inadequate support system.

What is trauma-informed lawyering?

“[T]he hallmarks of trauma-informed practice are when the practitioner puts the realities of the client’s trauma experiences at the forefront in engaging with the client, and adjusts the practice approach informed by the individual client’s trauma experience.”2

“[A] trauma-informed legal practice aims to reduce re-traumatization and recognize the role trauma plays in the lawyer-client relationship. Integrating trauma-informed practices provides lawyers with the opportunity to increase connections to their clients and improve advocacy.”3

It is often said that a trauma-informed lawyer asks not “what’s wrong with you?” but “what happened to you?”  A trauma-informed lawyer understands that the trauma does not define the client and the lawyer views the client as a whole with trauma as only one part of the client’s experiences; however the trauma-informed lawyer will put the realities of the client’s trauma experiences at the forefront of the lawyer’s interactions with the client, adjusting the lawyer’s approach in an attempt not to re-traumatize the client.

[2] Katz & Haldard, The Pedagogy of Trauma-Informed Lawyering, 22 Clinical L Rev 359, 359 (2016), available at files/upload_documents/Katz%20-%20Halder%20Pedagogy%20of%20Trauma-Informed%20Lawyering.pdf.

[3] Mbaku, Trauma-Informed Lawyering, Nat’l Ctr on Law and Elder Rights, [].

What are ACEs?

ACEs stands for Adverse Childhood Experiences. They are traumatic experiences experienced before the age of 18 which can have lasting impacts on their mental health, physical health, and general well-being.

Some examples include:

  • Experiencing physical or emotional abuse
  • Abandonment or neglect
  • Losing a family member to suicide
  • Growing up in a household with substance abuse or alcoholism
  • Having a mentally ill parent
  • Having an incarcerated parent
  • Being a child of divorce or parental separation

Why should I care about Adverse Childhood Experiences?

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) can have life-long lasting effects on health and well-being and life opportunities.

ACEs can increase the risks of injury, sexually transmitted infections, and involvement in sex trafficking, teen pregnancy, pregnancy complications, and fetal death.

A high ACE score has been linked to a range of chronic diseases and leading causes of death, such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and suicide

ACEs have been shown to impact education and job potential.

Can ACEs be prevented?  How?

ACEs can be prevented.  How?

(1) Creating and sustaining safe, stable, nurturing relationships and environments for children and families.

(2) Promote social norms that protect against violence and adversity.

(3) Strengthen economic supports to families.

(4) Ensure a strong start for children through:

  • Early childhood home visitation
  • High-quality child care
  • Preschool enrichment with family engagement

(5) Teach skills including:

  • Social-emotional learning
  • Safe dating and healthy relationship skill programs
  • Parenting skills and family relationship approaches

(6) Connect youth to caring adults and activities.

  • Mentoring programs
  • After-school programs

(7) Intervene to lessen immediate and long-term harm.

  • Enhanced primary care
  • Victim-centered services
  • Treatment to lessen the harms of ACEs
  • Treatment to prevent problem behavior and future involvement in violence
  • Family-centered treatment for substance use disorders