top of page

SPARCS: Structured Psychotherapy for
Adolescents Responding to Chronic Stress


By Jack Komer, 12/2021.

What is SPARCS?                                                                                     

SPARCS is a manually-guided and empirically-supported group treatment designed to improve the emotional, social, academic, and behavioral functioning of adolescents exposed to chronic interpersonal trauma (such as ongoing physical abuse) and/or separate types of trauma (e.g. community violence, sexual assault). The curriculum was designed to address the needs of adolescents who may still be living with ongoing stress and may be experiencing problems in several areas of functioning including difficulties with affect regulation and impulsivity, self-perception, relationships, somatization, dissociation, numbing and avoidance, and struggles with their own purpose and meaning in life as well as worldviews that make it difficult for them to see a future for themselves. The curriculum has been successfully implemented with at-risk youth in various service systems (e.g. schools, juvenile justice, child-welfare, residential) in over a dozen states. SPARCS also addresses comorbidity and impairments in functioning that stem from trauma but are not captured by a diagnosis of PTSD alone (e.g. behavior problems, delinquency, substance use).

Components of SPARCS (NCSTN, 2012, Pg. 2)

  • Mindfulness

  • Problem-Solving

  • Meaning-Making 

  • Relationship building

  • Communication Skills 

  • Distress Tolerance

  • Psychoeducation regarding stress, trauma, and triggers.

Evidence in Support of SPARCS

Research on the Components and Implementation of SPARCS (NCTSN, 2012):

  • Ford, J., Blaustein, M., Cloitre, M., Habib, M., Kagan, R. (in press). Developmental 
        Trauma Disorder-Focused Interventions for Traumatized Children and Adolescents. 
         In: J.D. Ford & C. A. Courtois (Eds), Treating complex traumatic stress disorders in 
         children: An evidence-based guide, NY: Guilford Press.

  • DeRosa, R. & Pelcovitz. D. (2008). Igniting SPARCS of change: Structured 
        psychotherapy for adolescents responding to chronic stress. In J. Ford, R. Pat-Horenczyk & D. Brom                (Eds.), Treating traumatized children: risk, resilience and 
        recovery, NY: Routledge. 

  • DeRosa, R., Habib, M., Pelcovitz, D., Rathus J., Sonnenklar,J., Ford, J., Sunday, S., 
        Layne, C., Saltzman, W., Turnbull, A., Labruna, V. & Kaplan, S. (2005). Structured 
        Psychotherapy for Adolescents Responding to Chronic Stress: A Treatment Guide. 
        Unpublished manual. 

Case Studies, Pilot Studies, and Clinical Trials (NCTSN, 2012):

  • Briggs-King, E. & Shaw, L. (2009). Durham County ABC Board Year End Report. Unpublished Report. Center      for Child and Family Health, Durham, N.C.

  • DeRosa, R. & Pelcovitz, D. (2006). Treating traumatized adolescent mothers: a structured approach. In: N.         Webb (Ed.), Working with traumatized youth in child welfare, NY: Guilford Press, 219-245.

  • Habib, M., Labruna, V., & Newman, J. (Manuscript submitted for publication). Complex Histories and                 Complex Presentations: Implementation of a Manually-Guided Group Treatment for Traumatized                     Adolescents. Journal of Family Violence.

  • Knoverek, A., Underwood, L., Habib, M., Briggs, E. (Manuscript in preparation). Feasibility and Effectiveness     of an Adapted Group Treatment for Traumatized Youth.

  • Mental Health Services & Policy Program & Illinois Department of Children & Family Services (2008). Final         evaluation of the pilot implementation of three evidence-based practices for the treatment of trauma             among youth in child welfare. Unpublished report.

  • Tandon SD, Mendelson T, Mance G. (2011). Acceptability and preliminary outcomes of a peer-led                     depression intervention for African American adolescents and young adults in employment training                 programs. Journal of Community Psychology, 39, 621-628.

  • Weiner, D., Schneider, A., and Lyons, J. (2009) Evidence-based treatments for trauma among culturally               diverse foster care youth: Treatment retention and outcomes. Children and Youth Services Review, 31,          1199-1205

Research Outcomes (NCTSN, 2012, Pg. 6-7)

  • "Pilot data indicate significant improvement in overall functioning over the course of treatment (as measured by the Youth Outcome Questionnaire SR-2.0 and the UCLA PTSD Reaction Index). Specific findings include:"

    • ​Significant changes on subscales measuring conduct problems, inattention/
         hyperactivity, somatic complaints, high risk behaviors, and interpersonal relationships.

    • Significant reduction in PTSD symptoms, with improvements noted in the overall 
         severity of posttraumatic stress symptoms, as well as scores assessing symptoms related to re-                 experiencing, avoidance, and hyper-arousal.

  • "For African-American Adolescents, youth receiving SPARCS "​

    • Were less likely to drop from treatment"​

    • Improved significantly on the following CANS subscales: Traumatic Stress Symptom, Life Domain                Functioning, and Risk Behaviors.

  • "The various studies conducted also found:

    • Decreased alcohol and drug use with 75% of adolescents reporting a decrease in 
        frequency following treatment.​

    • Significant reduction in attachment difficulties and in behavior problems at 
        school, home, and in the community

    • Decrease in disciplinary referrals in an alternative school

    • Significant improvement in interpersonal coping and an increase in support 
        seeking behavior

    • Significant decrease in depressive symptoms in youth exposed to community 
        violence and increase in active coping strategies"  

National Child Traumatic Stress Network Fact Sheet on SPARCS

SPARCS Webinar


DeRosa, R. & Pelcovitz. D. (in press). Igniting SPARCS of change: Structured psychotherapy for adolescents responding  to chronic stress. In J. Ford, R. Pat-Horenczyk & D. Brom (Eds.). Treating traumatized children: risk, resilience and          recovery. New York: Routledge. 

Ford, J. D. & Russo, E. (2006). Trauma-focused, present-centered, emotional self-regulation approach to integrated          treatment for posttraumatic stress and addiction: Trauma Adaptive Recovery Group Education and Therapy (TARGET).    American Journal of Psychotherapy. 60, 335-355.

NCTSN. (2020). SPARCS: Structured Psychotherapy for Adolescents Responding to Chronic Stress [Fact sheet].                                                                 

bottom of page