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What to Look for in a Trauma-Informed Therapist

Knowing what to look for in a therapist can empower you in your healing journey.

Key points

  • Many survivors of childhood trauma do not become aware of their traumas until they manifest as negative feelings in adulthood.
  • After to a history of boundary violations, many trauma survivors may struggle to feel comfortable opening up to a new therapist.
  • Working with an effective therapist can help manage trauma symptoms that emerge later in adulthood.
art by Kaytee Gillis
Be a work in progress. And keep progressing.
Source: art by Kaytee Gillis

It’s difficult to not be affected by events that happened during our developmental years, even more so if those things were especially difficult, or even traumatic.

All of us have things that impact us negatively as we grow up. While some find that they are able to move easily past their experiences, others feel that these events created traumas powerful enough to stay with them for years to come.

Even if you feel like you have left the trauma behind, there may be times when your history manifests as interpersonal relationship struggles, low self-esteem and self-worth, or unhealthy habits. Many feel they need to process their history when they start experiencing health issues like insomnia, anxiety, and depression. Others find that they need to go back and work through trauma from their younger years when they have their own children who provoke insecurities or hidden trigger wounds.

As we begin to do the work toward uncovering and exploring childhood traumas, it is normal that some feelings or symptoms can actually increase, since you are uncovering and diving into uncomfortable topics. This can lead to an increase in depression or anxiety, or to insomnia, anger, or resentment. It is during these times that people who have experienced childhood trauma find that it becomes necessary to have a professional support you along the way, particularly as feelings and symptoms begin to increase. The following five "green flags" will help you on your journey to finding the therapist best suited to help you:

  1. They need more than a basic understanding of your trauma. Someone who has experienced family of origin trauma would fare best with a therapist who understands the relationship dynamics that you experienced without you having to educate or explain. Therapists are not supposed to know everything, but many specialize in a certain population, experience, or “niche” area. Trauma is universal, but also specific. Look for a therapist who reports a lot of experience with your history. (Click here for tips on finding, and screening, a therapist.)
  2. Look for a therapist who has a few tools in their belt. There is a lot of hype right now in the mental health community about trauma modalities such as EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), EFT (Emotion-Focused Therapy), or IFS (Internal Family Systems therapy). Most new clients will be unfamiliar with these modalities before beginning therapy, some will have done their own research and may come to sessions with specific requests for what they feel will best benefit them in their healing. But while many people have had success with one or more of these trauma-informed modalities, there is no “one size fits all” treatment, and no guarantee that what works for someone else will work for you. Choosing a therapist based on one modality, despite their focus area, could limit your opportunity for healing. It can be empowering to do your own research on what you feel would work best, but it is also beneficial for therapists to be able to access more than one approach to help you.
  3. Empathy and compassion should be obvious from the beginning. I have had many clients tell me of previous therapists who came across as dismissive of them or who seemed to brush off their trauma as “the past,” urging them to “move on and forgive.” While every therapist has a different style, it is essential to find one who will have compassion for you and your history. A professional who discourages people from speaking out against family members, for example, or who pressures clients to forgive and move on, may not the best fit for you as you begin therapy. Trust your gut feeling.
  4. Good boundaries are essential. Children who grew up in environments where their boundaries were violated, either emotionally, physically, sexually, or spiritually, need a therapist they can trust to respect their boundaries. A client who grew up having to be the emotional caretaker to a parent, for example, could be triggered by a therapist who discloses too much information early on. Good boundaries for a therapeutic relationship typically involve minimal self-disclosure, listening more than talking (unless you asked to be educated on something or for further explanation), and, of course, reliably sticking to appointment times. A therapist who is consistently unreliable can make a client feel unsafe.
  5. The ability to admit that they are not all-knowing. Therapists often feel pressure to know everything about a client’s symptoms or case. There will be many times when you two can explore a topic together in a session, but you remain the expert on your own life history and sometimes even a mental-health professional needs to step back and become better educated on your specific challenges. A therapist who can say, “I don’t know, let’s explore further,” or, “I am not sure, this is new to me. Will you allow me to do some consultation to learn how to best support you?” is one who knows when to seek further knowledge or support, and is comfortable and secure enough to admit it. These are appropriate responses when a therapist is faced with a problem or situation on which they need more guidance.

To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

More from Kaytee Gillis, LCSW-BACS
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