FST Trauma Playbooks to Unstick Your Families

Traumatized families with traumatized children often remain stuck in “now what?” After identifying the traumatic event and telling their story, the question is “now what?”.

“What do we do in the here and now to heal our child’s trauma to move forward?”

Trauma therapists often lack the tools to answer this question. In response, the Family Systems Trauma (FST) model developed what are called FST Trauma Playbooks. These are written plans with concrete strategies to clarify everyone’s role in the family or community as to how to heal the child’s trauma in the here and now.

As illustrated in Table 1, the FST Trauma Playbook consists of who? what? where? when? and how? There are three main reason why Playbooks matter.

Why FST Trauma Playbooks Matter:


  1. The FST Playbook is typed up with clarity of roles. Traumatized families and their children who are stuck need a clear step-by-step plan that clearly spells out what is the intervention or technique is being used to heal the child’s problem symptoms or trauma. Without such a playbook, our clients are lost as to how to take the next steps and what they look like in the here and now.
  2. The FST Playbook is systemic, not linear. The playbook actively describes and involves the entire family and their community and is systemic. It is not just a linear plan for just the individual child but one that mobilizes the entire family.
  3. The FST Playbook details the “how?” – The “how” of the FST Playbook details everyone’s role and a brief description of what they will be doing or the steps they will take to make the intervention work. Specificity is a must. As the FST therapist, you will list the names of each person involved and beside their name, what they will be doing. This kind of detail is often so rare in treatment and why so often the intervention fails.

See chapter 8 of Treating the Traumatized Child: A Step-by-Step Family Systems Approach for a detailed listing of family trauma techniques and sample playbooks that you can use with your complex trauma cases.

Playbook for [Place Name of Seed Being Addressed Here]:
[Insert Name of Intervention Here]


List the names of everyone who is involved with executing this intervention. Include when applicable, extended family members or other outside villagers

  • Caregiver
  • Children
  • Extended Family
  • Villagers (e.g., friends, neighbors, school counselors, local organizations, etc.)


List what the intervention selected is (the name of it)

  • Name of Intervention


Details of when the intervention will take place. Specificity is a must. List the actual date, day(s) of the week, and time(s). If you do not know yet list TBD (to be determined)

  • TBD (To be Determined) or
  • Date and Day of the Week
  • Time or Times


Details of where the intervention will take place (i.e., inside home, location outside the home, etc.) If you do not know yet, list TBD (to be determined)

  • TBD (To be Determined) or
  • Specific location (home, at grandparents’ house, outside home, etc.)

How – Clarity of Everyone’s Roles:

Details of everyone’s role and a brief description of what they will be doing or the steps to make the intervention work. Specificity is a must. List the names of each person involved and beside their name, what they will be doing.

  • Caregiver – Description of what they will be doing
  • Adolescent – Description of what they will be doing
  • Extended Family Member – Description of what they will be doing
  • Outside Organization or Person – Description of what they will be doing

Transition Statement

The FST Trauma Therapist will meet with the family and use the following transition statement as they hand out the FST Trauma Playbook in Table 1:

“Thank you for coming in today. I think today will be an exciting meeting for everyone. It is the day we put our final playbook together as a team using this template (hand out Table 1). The Trauma Playbook we co-create together today will work like an antibiotic or Rx prescription to actively heal your child’s wounds or problems of [restate them here] in the here and now.

Football teams also use playbooks during spring training to give players clear direction, clarity to everybody’s role, and to make sure everyone is on the same sheet of music before opening day. In the same way, we will use our trauma playbooks to give us clear direction on how we will work together as a team to help heal your child’s problems. [State child’s name] is not alone. We can all rally together to help and be that team.”

This transition statement sets the tone and clearly describes the rationale behind the FST Trauma Playbook with the analogy of how playbooks are used in a similar way for football teams during spring training. And the intervention itself is analogous to an Rx prescription one would receive to actively heal the body. In the same way, the FST Trauma Playbook is used to heal the child’s traumatic symptoms.


After the family creates their playbook, there is immediate hope and expectation for change. The parent or caregiver is hopeful because they finally have a concrete plan in writing. The child is hopeful because it is finally clear that it is a family problem to solve and not a child only problem to fix.

However, before your family leaves your office, you must give them a final important message that states that they are not to implement the FST Trauma Playbook until they first have dress rehearsal practice and troubleshooting within the next session:

“Before we end today, I want to say a couple of important things. First, I am asking you not to use any part of your trauma playbook before our next session. The reason is that we have one last step to do before using your playbook. In this last step, we will practice your delivery of the playbook and troubleshoot for any unforeseen problems that might come up. Look at it this way, you have already waited this long to solve your child’s problems, what is one more week in the big picture.

Second, if you put your playbook into play without dress rehearsals or practicing your delivery, the research shows that the risk for failure is very high. It is like sending a football team out on the field with a playbook but with no actual practice of any of the plays ahead of time.

So, let me go around the room to ask for your commitment to this request, one person at a time.”

We often set our clients up for failure. We provide a plan without any practice on how to deliver it or go through “what will you do if?” troubleshooting problem solving scenarios ahead of time. The result is poor timing, poor delivery, and failure.

In next month’s article, I will present this FST Troubleshooting and Dress Rehearsal technique that synchronizes with the FST Trauma Playbook.

About the Author

Scott P. Sells, Ph.D., MSW, LCSW, LMFT, is the author of three books, Treating the Tough Adolescent: A Family-Based, Step-by-Step Guide (1998), Parenting Your Out-of-Control Teenager: 7 Steps to Reestablish Authority and Reclaim Love (2001), and Treating the Traumatized Child: A Step-by-Step Family Systems Approach (2017). He can be contacted at spsells@familytrauma.com or through LinkedIn. and Facebook.

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