Trauma-Informed Care in Practice: Language (Part One)

Mar 13, 2019 | by Meggie

In this two-part post, we will first take a look at how STOP-IT’s trauma-informed approach to care informs the language we use when talking about and to the people we serve. Stay tuned for next week when we put this theoretical framework into practice with scenarios for you to explore on your own.

What is a trauma-informed approach, and how does language fit in?

In her post about Drop-In’s core values, Jenn provided a comprehensive explanation of what it means to be trauma-informed. As a reminder, STOP-IT incorporates these three key elements into our approach to trauma-informed care: (1) realizing the prevalence of trauma; (2) recognizing how trauma affects all individuals involved with the program, organization, and system, including its own workforce, and (3) responding by putting this knowledge into practice (OVC, TTAC, n.d.).

A primary tenet of trauma-informed work is establishing safety within both the context of the relationship between service provider and program participant and in the participant’s larger context. We begin to establish safety in the relationship by collaborating to create a shared language. Because language is complex, multidimensional, and bound by culture, time, and place, it is important to ensure that a program participant and case worker are speaking the same language – assigning similar meaning to the words we use. How we talk to and about the people we serve reflects the beliefs we have about their experiences, their strengths, and their capacities for change.

How do we refer to people’s experiences of trafficking, exploitation, and abuse?

We listen to the ways in which our program participants describe their experiences and mirror their language. While STOP-IT is an anti-human trafficking program, we understand that many of the people we serve may not use the language of human trafficking or exploitation to describe their situations. This may be due to trauma and/or lack of information. With this consideration in mind, our team defaults to referring to behaviors we hear about (e.g. “the person who hurt you” instead of “trafficker”) when talking to survivors.

When might we not reflect someone’s language? When the language could be interpreted as demeaning or degrading. Instead, we explain why we may use a different word while affirming the person’s choice of how they understand and describe their circumstance.

Whether we are speaking to community members, partners, or current and potential program participants, the STOP-IT team adjusts its language to ensure we are reaching our intended audience and meeting them where they are. If you’ve attended one of our trainings, you may have experienced this first hand. We break down the legal definitions of trafficking into accessible, identifiable, and relatable pieces, because we understand the complexities of this crime and the tactics traffickers use to normalize abuse.


At STOP-IT, we refer to people who have lived experiences of human trafficking as survivors, describing someone who identifies with having survived painful experiences and is in the process of recovery and reclaiming a sense of personal power. However, we understand that not everyone’s experience fits with this framing. For some, the word “victim” is a way to honor and affirm experiences of abuse when such validation and affirmation has been absent. Some people use these terms interchangeably to reflect their waves of trauma healing. While we generally use the word “survivor,” our program philosophy honors participants’ experiences and voices. If someone uses the word “victim” or describe themselves as having “lived experience,” we mirror that language, because we trust and respect them. Sometimes, we may invite further exploration into the words they use to describe themselves and their situations to ensure that our words accurately align with their meaning.


The words we use reflect how we think about the support we offer individuals and communities. Given the collaborative nature of case management, the social work field uses the word “client” to refer to individuals receiving and participating in social services (NASW, 2016). The word “patient” implies the language of medicine and the power dynamic between doctor and patient, placing the doctor as expert on what is best for the individual receiving services. At STOP-IT, we believe that the people we serve are the experts of their own experiences and needs. As case managers, we partner with our clients and prefer to use the term “participants” in supporting them to achieve their goals. We recognize the power dynamics inherent in a service provider-service user relationship, and we try to mitigate the imbalance as much as possible. We understand restoring choice to and respecting the autonomy of our participants as foundational to our work.

How do we talk to and about participants’ well-being, behavior, and motivation?

We support participants in defining their circumstances, needs, and goals. We do not refer to our participants as “resistant.” We understand our participants’ actions through the lens of survival. This means we normalize their behavior as methods they used to cope and care for themselves under difficult circumstances, and we help them assess in what ways their survival mechanisms may or may not continue to serve them.

We do not make promises we can’t keep. We do not promise safety, nor do we ensure that working with us will help folks meet all their needs. We set reasonable expectations, such as “we will do everything we can to keep you safe,” “we are here because we want to do our best to help you and protect you (and your family).”

We do not ask participants to share the details of their trauma. This information is not necessary to help folks get their needs met and access resources, and it can be re-traumatizing for people to relive and retell their painful experiences without adequate coping skills and support.

We believe survivors. We understand how trauma impacts memory, the many reasons why someone may not share their whole truth with us, and we know the pain that can be caused by invalidation and disbelief.

Pronouns: she/her/hers, he/him/his, they/them/theirs, and more!

(If you’re looking for more information about language and terms related to LGBTQ communities, check out this handout developed by the LGBTQ Working Group of the Cook County Human Trafficking Task Force)

At STOP-IT, we honor our participants’ identities and experiences. When we first meet folks, we ask them what pronouns they use and invite them to share with us how they identify their gender, sexuality, and race. Given our belief that participants are the experts on their lives, we want to create room for our participants to share as much of themselves with us as feels safe. We all hold multiple, complex, and intersecting identities that influence how we see ourselves, our relationships, and the world. We want to provide space for our participants to communicate their experiences of holding multiple identities.

The pronouns we use for someone reflects our impression of and respect for their gender. It can take practice to use pronouns that may be new to us; however, validating someone’s identity and experience is well worth the effort. If we are struggling to remember to use “she/her” for someone, the likely truth is that we aren’t really thinking of her as “her.” This may seem like a daunting perceptive shift to make; however, we already shift our understanding of people all the time! For instance, when we think someone is older or younger than they actually are, we take the time to mentally re-conceive of this person as their actual age.

It may feel embarrassing or shameful to make mistakes as we adjust our understanding of a person and try out language that may be new to us. This is understandable. Often, recognizing the mistake and making the effort to correct ourselves can go a long way to demonstrating that we see and respect someone for who they are.

What do you think?

Next week you will have the opportunity to put this information into practice! In the meantime, comment on our Facebook page to share your thoughts on our approach to trauma-informed, sensitive, and inclusive language. Do you have other questions about language and terminology? We’d love to hear from you!


Office for Victims of Crime Training and Technical Assistance Center. (n.d.) Using a Trauma-Informed Approach. In Human trafficking task force e-guide: Strengthening collaborative responses (4.1). Retrieved from

National Association of Social Workers. (2016). NASW Standards for Social Work Practice. Retrieved from


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