PODCAST: Early Trauma, Teen Aggression and the Juvenile Justice System

In a recent podcast, Natalie Katz of Sage Publications interviewed Julian D. Ford, one of the authors of “Complex Trauma and Aggression in Secure Juvenile Justice Settings.” This study, written by John Chapman, Daniel F. Connor and Keith R. Cruise in addition to Ford, examines the relationship between trauma experienced by young people and aggressive behavior, especially in youths in the juvenile justice system.
Below you’ll find Natalie Katz’s main questions in bold, followed by my summary of Ford’s answers. You can also listen to the full podcast here (it’s about 15 minutes long).
What kinds of trauma are most often experienced by youths?
Most youths experience one traumatic event sometime in their childhoods. These events are very seriously threatening and fall into a few different categories:

  • Violation of bodily integrity
  • Violent trauma creating serious physical harm
  • Accidental trauma (driving collisions, falls, etc)


Although these traumatic situations are often accidental, they can still cause long-lasting stressors that impact youth development. Teens in the justice system often haven’t had the kind of protection we take for granted, which leads to impulsiveness and risk taking.
How can early exposure to traumatic events lead to problems of aggression?
Early trauma flips a switch in a youth’s brain, shifting their thought process from learning to survival. Minor bumps in the road can then seem to be life or death situations to somebody who has experienced trauma, making their reactions extreme. These youths aren’t aggressive because they take pleasure in hurting people, but they’re reacting to what they think are severe threats.
Common reactions also include emotional numbing and social detachment. It’s important to remember that although these youths may appear to be unfeeling, this isn't actually the case. Oftentimes they’ve shut down due to not understanding a traumatic stressor.
How can juvenile justice providers help youths manage aggressive impulses or behavior?
Learning how to understand traumatic stress reactions is critical for youths, parents, caregivers, probation officers, teachers, staff and physicians. The most important thing to understand is that most of these youths are highly intelligent--the issue is that their brain activity has shifted from learning and development to survival.
Many education programs can help those involved with youths in the juvenile justice system. Ford and his colleagues developed TARGET, an educational resource aimed to reset the brain without medication or surgery. Via the TARGET website,
TARGET is an educational and therapeutic approach for the prevention and treatment of post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD). TARGET provides a seven-step sequence of skills - the FREEDOM Steps - that are designed to enable youth and adults to understand and gain control of trauma-related reactions triggered by current daily life stresses.
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network provides another set of educational resources, including Think Trauma, a four to six hour training program with tools for juvenile justice caregivers. And of course our blog right here has plenty of reading for those looking to catch up on the latest juvenile justice discussion points:

juvenile-justice-system_David-BackesDavid Backes writes the Friday news roundup for Reclaiming Futures and contributes articles about juvenile justice reform and adolescent substance abuse treatment to ReclaimingFutures.org. He has a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Santa Clara University. David works as an account executive for Prichard Communications.

Updated: February 08 2018