The relationship between childhood trauma and delinquency is well substantiated (Baglivio et al., 2015), however less is known about sources of protection and best treatment approaches for traumatized system-involved youth. Though cognitive behavioral interventions are common in treatment with incarcerated young people, cognitive strengths and cultural assets are often de-emphasized. A focus on cognitive resilience, an emerging multidimensional concept encompassing the ability to flexibly respond to challenging and distressing events (Haglund et al., 2007), may hold promise for interventions with this population.
This mixed methods research examined the trauma-related experiences, needs, and strengths of a sample of incarcerated male youth (ages 16-21 years; 74% Black) housed in an adult carceral program. Building on existing knowledge about the high prevalence of trauma in this population, this study investigated the role of cognitive strengths in the relationship between trauma experiences and symptoms, and tested the potential moderating roles of racial identity.
Data collection included: a) surveying 125 incarcerated males in the program, collecting data about history of potentially traumatic events, symptomatology, and sources of cognitive resilience through the use of adapted standardized instruments; and b) semi-structured follow-up interviews with a stratified subsample of 30 incarcerated youth to garner more detailed information about their experiences, needs, and strengths. A triangulation-convergence approach (Creswell & Plano Clark, 2011) was used to integrate quantitative and qualitative findings, then sources of cognitive resilience were tested using hierarchical regression to examine how they contribute to the relationship between trauma experiences and symptomatology. Racial differences in cognitive strengths were also examined, considering knowledge that identity serves protectively in coping and developmental processes (Gaylord-Harden et al., 2008).
Preliminarily, the relatively high prevalence of trauma experiences and symptomatology in the incarcerated youth population, in comparison with general community samples, was confirmed. Quantitative and qualitative findings together identified the significance of cognitive resilience, especially emotion regulation, self-esteem, and mindfulness, in reduction of trauma symptomatology. A secondary regression model indicated that sources of cognitive resilience are more significant predictors of symptomatology than trauma typology. Quantitative data also confirmed that there are racial and ethnic differences in sources of cognitive resilience, and in particular, that there are hidden talents (Ellis et al., 2020), strengths, and cultural assets in the majority group of incarcerated Black youth, including self-efficacy, self-esteem, decision-making, problem-solving, non-reactivity, and overall resilience.
These findings substantiate the importance of trauma-informed care and cognitive resilience for incarcerated youth, and implicate strengths that could aid in navigating challenging contexts. These strengths may be valuable in intervention efforts, if youth are supported in learning to leverage them in a beneficial manner. Further, identifying sources of cognitive resilience that reflect cultural assets and protection is especially important.
This research has implications for the assessment and treatment of trauma for incarcerated youth, utilizing strengths-based and culturally promotive approaches to build on preexisting assets and strengths which help youth to cope in their environments. Findings support broader system recommendations including improving screening and assessment processes, trauma education for providers and families, and inclusive research design.