Discover how open adoption and continued contact with birth parents and kin can greatly benefit adopted children.
All children in foster care have experienced some form of trauma. The very act of being put in foster care is traumatic for children because it means removal from their birth family. Often, the very reason children were removed from their homes is because they experienced neglect or abuse.
Parenting children who have experienced trauma is a profound journey that demands a unique set of skills and understanding. We've put together this in-depth guide to help you as an adoptive or foster parent gain an understanding of trauma-informed care so that your family can be equipped to thrive. In this guide, we'll draw on the wisdom of experts in the field, delving deep into understanding trauma, how it affects children, and how you can practice trauma-informed care.
What is Trauma?
"Understanding the diverse forms of trauma is crucial. Abuse, neglect, and loss impact a child's development differently. Tailoring support to these specific experiences is essential for effective parenting." - Dr. Karyn Purvis
Child traumatic stress occurs when children and adolescents are exposed to events or situations that overwhelm their ability to cope. These dire experiences create neurological changes that cause the child to be continually in "survival" mode. Since children are still developing, the impacts of trauma in their early life can go on to shape their behavior and experiences in a number of ways.
There are many distinct types of trauma, each with specific impacts on a child's emotional, cognitive, and social development. Abuse, neglect, loss, abandonment, or other experiences can all have traumatic effects. Common stories of traumatic experiences could be:
- A baby or child relinquished by birth parents
- A baby or child removed or relinquished from birth parents because they have been physically/sexually/emotionally abused
- A baby or child who has been neglected
- A child who lives between harmful birth parents and safe friends/family over a long period of time
- A child removed at birth and who goes on to experience multiple adverse experiences, such as death of a care-giver, bullying, or physical illness
- A child living with a safe and loving family, but who suffers sexual abuse from outside the family from a young age
- A baby or child removed from safe foster carers placed into a safe adoptive family
- A child who experienced severe health problems and multiple medical interventions period of time
(List from Dr Shoshanah Lyons, Dr Kathryn Whyte, Ruth Stephens and Helen Townsend www.beaconhouse.org.uk/useful-resources/)
It's important to note that individuals may experience multiple types of trauma, and the effects can be cumulative. Moreover, the age at which the trauma occurs, the duration, and the relationship with the perpetrator can also influence the severity and manifestation of trauma-related symptoms.
Children who have such traumatic experiences are often stuck in survival responses - fight/flight/freeze/collapse - carrying their past experiences with them wherever they go. As a result, they tend to develop many coping mechanisms that manifest as difficult behavior and are hindered in appropriate development of impulse control, problem-solving, or rationalizing.
Even though trauma can drastically affect a child's life, the burden of trauma can often be invisible in day-to-day life. It is the caregiver's responsibility to become attuned to the hidden emotional burdens they carry so that you can provide the nuanced support they need to thrive.
"Children from hard places carry invisible emotional burdens. Being attuned to these hidden struggles allows parents to provide the nuanced support their children need." - Deborah Gray
Trauma's Effects on a Child's Brain
Every experience of trauma is unique, and the nature of what a child has experienced will shape how it affects them. The stage of their development, the severity of circumstances, and the child's unique makeup all contribute to the neurological effects on the child's brain - and how those effects manifest in everyday life.
Trauma can affect every layer of a child's brain - from the "primitive brain" that controls sensory input and survival, the "mid-brain" that controls behavioral and emotional regulation, to the "cortical brain" that orients thinking and learning. There are seven critical areas of impact on children across these different areas of the brain.
Seven Neurological Effects
1) Sensory Development
Children affected by trauma at a young age may have difficulty interpreting sensory experiences as they age. This can cause them to either over-react or under-react to sensory input like sounds, textures, or stimulating environments.
Dissociation is a survival mechanism that separates thoughts and feelings from experiences. It helps victims of trauma survive unbearable situations. However, this survival mechanism comes at a strong cost later as children can have experiences of amnesia, feelings that they "aren't real", feeling so disconnected from their body that it "doesn't belong to them", or identity confusion.
3) Attachment Development
Children's experience with caregivers early in life helps form their attachment style throughout their life. Essentially, attachment styles are the basic strategies a child adopts to feel safe around others. Trauma received from caregivers drastically affects this system, setting children up for intense difficulty feeling safe in relationships.
4) Emotional Regulation
Emotional regulation is a skill our brains learn by having caregivers help co-regulate emotions through responding in caring and soothing ways. For children whose early emotions are not met with care, but with ongoing trauma, their brains aren't able to learn this crucial skill. As a result, even as they age well past toddlerhood traumatized children can have great difficulty in understanding and regulating their emotions.
5) Behavioral Regulation
The brain's normal ability to control behavior naturally falls in a "window of tolerance" where our bodies and minds are not overwhelmed. Beyond this window, we begin to lose control of our behavior. For traumatized children, this window of tolerance can be very very small - such that seemingly normal requests send them into an emotional spiral that results in challenging behaviors.
Due to the effects of trauma on a child's survival functions, most of their brain's resources are dedicated to managing fear responses and assessing if adults can be trusted. This leaves little room left for "higher functions" like planning, problem-solving, or learning.
7) Self Concept & Identity Development
Children who have experienced trauma often have a very deep sense of being unwanted, unloved, or "bad". They can feel as if they don't belong anywhere and are often in search of some source of validation.
This range of neurological impacts drastically affects the day-to-day experience of children who have experienced trauma. As they mature, these areas can begin to coalesce into complex mental health issues like anxiety, depression, or PTSD symptoms.
How Children Heal From Trauma
As serious as the effects of trauma can be on a child's development, the good news is that these children can experience healing!
"The parent-child connection is the most powerful mental health intervention in the world." - Bessel van der Kolk, acclaimed trauma researcher and author of The Body Keeps the Score
Just as developmental trauma occurs within key relationships, so too can healing and repair. As Dr. Karen Triesman puts it, "Relationships heal relationship trauma." As parents and caregivers, you play a pivotal role in helping your children heal from the trauma they have experienced. It is in relationships that young people can experience the security, stability, love, and support that they need to thrive. As they receive the secure and safe relationships they didn't have earlier in life, it provides the opportunity for the brain to "re-wire" and for all seven areas of neurological impact to be repaired.
The experience of trauma is not the end of the story for children and teens. Both science and life show that individuals can heal, even from the deepest of wounds. Parents and caregivers are extremely important in the healing process - but it is vital to understand that "love" is not enough. It takes more than good intentions for children to heal from trauma. They need particular approaches to parenting and relationships that allow their trauma to be addressed. It is these concrete approaches that form the baseline of all trauma-informed care.
Trauma-Informed Parenting: What Does it Look Like?
Trauma-informed parenting is a holistic approach that recognizes the profound impact of trauma on a child's behavior and emotions. Trauma-informed parents strive to create an environment that not only addresses the immediate needs of the child but also supports their long-term healing.
"It's not about changing the child; it's about changing ourselves to meet the needs of the child." - Bryan Post, Author of From Fear to Love
Marks of a Trauma-Informed Home
1 ) Safety
A healing home is a safe home. Children must experience a sense of psychological safety in their family environment. This means they feel safe to have and express a range of emotions, they feel like life is predictable and understandable, and they experience a growing sense of well-being, pleasure, and mastery at home.
In Practice: Prioritize consistency and predictability in daily routines to create a sense of security. Be attuned to your child's emotional cues and respond with empathy and understanding. Help them build a sense of confidence in learning how to navigate the home, complete small tasks, and grow in independence.
"A healing environment is built on consistency, predictability, and emotional safety. Parents can actively contribute to this environment by being attuned to their child's needs and providing a stable foundation." - Dr. Laura Markham
2) Trusting Relationships
A trauma-informed parenting approach places connection at the heart of your parenting style. It can be very difficult for traumatized children to trust adults, but the work of slowly repairing their ability to trust is extremely important for their development and well-being. Creating trusting relationships throughout the family is the linchpin for long-term healing.
In Practice: Build habits of connection where your child feels seen and valued by you personally. Practice active listening, taking time to hear how your child is feeling and reflecting what they are saying back to them. Place a higher value on maintaining trust than on "making" your child "behave right."
3) Coaching Emotional Regulation
Children who have experienced trauma need help regulating their emotions. As a caregiver, you play an important role in helping to co-regulate in response to what can feel like frightening or overwhelming emotions in the child's brain. Parents who practice trauma-informed care know that helping their children develop emotional regulation strategies is essential to their long-term well-being.
In Practice: Your first response to big emotions should be empathy. Help coach them through their emotional experience. Help them name and accept the emotions they are experiencing. Receive their emotions non-judgementally. Help them name how their body feels as they experience emotions like sadness or anger.
4) Empathetic Responses to Behavioral Challenges
Challenging behaviors often manifest as a result of a child's past experiences. Those behaviors are the language of a hurt child. Deciphering this language requires empathy, understanding, and a commitment to addressing the root causes rather than merely reacting to surface-level behaviors.
"While addressing immediate needs is crucial, trauma-informed parenting looks beyond crisis management. It focuses on long-term healing, understanding that building resilience takes time and commitment." - Heather T. Forbes
In Practice: Balance immediate responses with a commitment to the long-term healing journey. If the child is not immediately endangering themselves or others, prioritize trying to address the root emotions behind a behavior rather than the behavior itself. Recognize that progress may be gradual, and celebrate small victories along the way. Respond with empathy and strategies that address the underlying needs, promoting healing rather than punishment.
Building a Toolbox for Behavioral Challenges
"Developing a toolbox for behavioral challenges involves gathering a range of strategies tailored to your child's unique needs. It's about being flexible and adapting your approach to different situations." - Tina Payne Bryson
Curate a personalized toolbox of strategies, including calming techniques, positive reinforcement, and de-escalation methods. Avoid harsh punishments, yelling, or escalated reactions - as difficult as it may be!
It's a Journey
Trauma-informed parenting is not a quick fix. There is no quick fix in the process for children to heal from deep psychological wounds. It is a journey - for both you and your child - with many ups, downs, setbacks, and victories. The deepest truth of trauma-informed parenting is understanding that it is a process. Embracing the process means accepting a lifelong journey of change that demands compassion, grace, and hope.
Parental Self-Care is Essential
The journey of trauma-informed parenting is the longest of marathons. Parenting children with trauma histories is emotionally demanding and it necessitates a commitment to self-care. Nicole Arzt, a licensed marriage and family therapist, aptly points out that "Self-care is not selfish; it's essential."
"Redefining self-care is essential. It's not just about pampering oneself; it's about actively prioritizing mental, emotional, and physical well-being to be a more effective and resilient caregiver." - Nicole Arzt
Expand your definition of self-care to include activities that promote mental and emotional well-being. Recognize that taking care of yourself enhances your ability to care for your child. Establish clear boundaries to prevent burnout. Seek support from friends, family, or professionals, and understand that prioritizing your well-being benefits both you and your child.
Trauma-informed parenting demands a profound understanding of trauma, attachment, and effective parenting techniques. As we navigate the challenges posed by behavioral issues, prioritize self-care, and foster communication and connection, we equip ourselves to provide the love and support these children desperately need. In the words of Deborah Gray,
"Every child is one caring adult away from being a success story."
By embodying trauma-informed approaches, we can be that caring adult and contribute to the healing journey of children who have experienced trauma.
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