3 Ways Leaders Can Help Their Employees Who Experienced Childhood Trauma

Danielle Dahl, MSML


Photo by Roland Samuel on Unsplash

60% of adults have experienced an incident of childhood trauma. 15.6% score a four or higher on the ACE test*.

Motivating employees who score more than a four on the ACE (adverse childhood experience) test, is a skill that business schools do not teach. It is a critical talent because more than half of the adult population has experienced trauma, and will have trauma-based reactions to workplace situations.

Survival mode

Adults who survive childhood trauma may have PTSD and are battling to survive; life at home, life at work, and life lessons from their past create increased anxiety. Survivors of childhood trauma are more likely to suffer from:

Each of these ailments can bring additional challenges to the workplace. However, there are other aspects to adults dealing with trauma that impact their decision-making processes. Knowing how to bring out their best, and lead them, despite their tendency to self-sabotage, is challenging. Trauma survivors need you to: inspire, encourage autonomy, and provide growth opportunities regularly.

Inspire through a sense of meaning and purpose

I have a score of 9 on the ACE test. Part of the way I learned to cope was by convincing myself that there had to be meaning and purpose to the things I went through. Now, I look for meaning and purpose in everything I do.

If my current job doesn’t fulfill that sense of purpose I crave, I start to get anxious. Not all careers are going to have the inherent meaningfulness being a pediatric oncologist carries. It will be the leader’s job to help members of your team stay motivated and see the bigger picture.

A simple way to remind people of their impact is through testimonials. Having these read out loud, and showcased, can demonstrate the influence your employees are having on real people. Tell these team members about their reason and purpose within the company, and make sure they feel valued and appreciated.

Encourage autonomy and choice

Adult employees who suffered childhood trauma will crave freedom and the feeling that they have a say in their work. Independence aids in the quest to combat the helplessness that we feel every day — a little piece of power.

According to Dr. Daniel Wheatley:

Greater levels of control over work tasks and schedule have the potential to generate significant benefits for the employee, which was found to be evident in the levels of reported well-being. The positive effects associated with informal flexibility and working at home, offer further support to the suggestion that schedule control is highly valued and important to employees “enjoying” work.

Allowing employees to prioritize their day and select what they work on will help foster a sense of ownership in their work. By providing them with control, they will feel connected to the work they are doing.

Offering programs that connect people with therapists and counselors is another way that organizations can provide their staff with a choice. A choice to heal the wounds they have carried with them for all of their life. Discussing the importance of mental health days, and supporting things like a midday office break and meditation moments, will encourage your employees to take care of their mental health.

Provide opportunities for growth

Knowing where skilled employees see themselves within the company is vital. An employee staying in a position that doesn’t fit them can crush their sense of internal fulfillment. Conversations about their future, coupled with orchestrating a plan on how they can move up (or even laterally to a position that suits them better), are essential to employees with PTSD from childhood trauma. Growth conversations can help keep the demons, whispering that we aren’t successful enough, at bay.

Those who have managed to survive to adulthood without abusing substances likely have “an achievement problem.” Employees with trauma work hard because anxiety tells them that nothing is good enough.

Every day is a battle between the professional, educated, and accomplished version of myself, and the inner demons telling me I am a fraud; that I am nothing more than the sad little girl whose parents didn’t love her enough.

That no matter what I achieve, or how many degrees I earn, or the titles I hold, I will always be invisible and unworthy. Nothing more than the daughter of a drug addict just waiting to fulfill my destiny for failure.

This war, and my fears, manifests in things like earning a college degree at 17 or being one of the company’s youngest store managers early in my career, sometimes, though it results in overload. For example, while getting my Masters in Management and Leading Teams, I decided to write a book.

That was not enough, so I decided that the book would involve my commitment to doing something every day for the next year. Then in the middle of that, I decided to write and publish articles, not to mention my full-time job and family. My friends have this little saying: There is the easy way, the hard way, and then there is Danielle’s way. Overload will wear down your employees, and they will not function

My immediate goal to do as many things I could humanly do boiled down to one key fact. I was searching for a sense of purpose and inner fulfillment that I had been missing. For me, this led to focusing on my dream of being a writer.

When helping your trauma driven, overachieving employees, keep in mind that they are relentless about achieving their goals. When their goals align with your organization’s goals, your organization will thrive.

Organizational Impact

Companies should invest in training for managers that discuss the basics about how to lead employees with trauma.

This group of employees has spent their whole lives searching for a safe space, a space where they belong, an area where they shine. They will work harder than ever before when they finally find it. Or they will leave and go to work even harder for someone else, often the competition.

If an organization can invest in its leaders, and make sure they have all of these skills, every employee will benefit. Including the ones who live every day as if it is a battle between the professional, educated, and accomplished versions of themselves. The ones whose inner demons tell them they are a fraud, that they are nothing more than the sad little girl whose parents didn’t love her enough.


* https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2019/11/05/776550377/cdc-childhood-trauma-is-a-public-health-issue-and-we-can-do-more-prevent-it

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Words matter. Sharing the pain and evolution found in our life stories compels others to investigate, “How they came to be who they are?” Delving into the events that shaped us as children creates a level of self-awareness each of us can use to establish enduring and essential change. I use my personal history, education as a Management professional, and training as a Life Coach to write insightful articles about leadership and teams, personal development, and everything else that pertains to growth, both professionally and personally.


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