As a therapist for kids in foster care, every day I was working with kiddos who had experienced trauma. Some had experienced physical or sexual abuse, medical traumas, or substance exposure in utero. Others had experienced neglect—their parents weren’t able to meet their basic needs. Almost all experienced a sense of abandonment—for some reason, the people who were supposed to love and care for them the most, their parents, were unable or unwilling to do so. I remember sitting with a little girl in foster care who was unable to reunify with her mother. She cried in counseling – she felt like her mother didn’t love her enough to get her back and stop using drugs. That’s hard to reconcile as a child.
The Impact of Trauma
We are deeply impacted by trauma. If you have experienced trauma firsthand, you understand this. Trauma has a way of sticking with us—even when we wish it would just go away. Sometimes the effects are conscious—we can’t stop thinking about the trauma. Other times, the effects are unconscious—we might be jumpy or anxious, but don’t understand why. In a similar way, trauma can impact almost every aspect of our kids’ lives. The abuse, neglect, or abandonment a child experiences changes the neurobiology of the brain. Even infants separated from their birth mother experience a degree of trauma that impacts their neurobiological development. The amygdala, the area of the brain responsible for survival, gets activated and turns on our “fight, flight or freeze” response. When the survival brain gets turned on, it turns off other areas of the brain responsible for regulation, language, and executive functioning skills, which can make simple tasks and experiences really hard for our kiddos. Trauma also makes attachment difficult. As adoptive or foster parents, we might not even know the extent of our kids’ trauma history. How can we parent in an effective way when our kids are impacted by trauma? Here are 3 keys when parenting a child who has experienced trauma:
Key #1: Connection is Key
When parenting a child who has experienced trauma, connection is key. Our kiddos have been harmed through relationship, and they need to experience healing through relationship as well. Trauma can cause kiddos to display disruptive behavior. You may have experienced this. Remember, many of our kids have an over-activated amygdala, so you may experience them becoming deregulated for prolonged periods of time, or engaging in baffling behaviors. The natural reaction might be to disconnect from kids when this happens (e.g., send them to their room). But this disconnection can exacerbate the separation that kids have already experienced. Instead, remain connected while you correct your children. For example, instead of sending your kids to their room for a “time out,” engage in a “time in” where you stay connected (e.g., rehearsing coping skills together to help them feel calm). Remember, you are teaching a child how to do life, and for many of our kids, that means helping them regulate themselves when things become too much. That way, you aren’t activating the trauma area of the brain that sends our kiddos into “fight, flight, or freeze.”
Key #2: Think Survival, Not Disobedience
One game-changer for many parents is when they begin to think of their child’s behavior in terms of survival, not disobedience. For many kids who have experienced trauma, they did what they needed to do in order to survive (e.g., aggressive behavior, hoarding food). Now, in the current setting, the behavior isn’t adaptive. But it was in the past. It takes time for children to learn new behaviors that work in their current environment. It’s hard to let go of the things that enabled them to get to where they are at today. Verbal affirmations and reassurances can be very helpful during these times. For example, you could say “I will keep you safe; you are loved.” Or, you could let your child keep a snack in their backpack as a physical reminder that you will feed them and their needs will be met.
Key #3: Get More Help If You Need It
Many of my families came in to counseling when they were at the very end of their rope. By this point, the negative family interactions had been going on quite a while, and some patterns had become entrenched. Counseling works, but it’s better if you get help sooner rather than later. Almost all children who have come to your family through adoption or foster care have experienced trauma, grief and loss. It’s important to let your child know that their voice matters. Working with a trained child therapist who specializes in trauma and adoption and foster care related issues can be a big support to your child and you as a parent. Some people have negative views of counseling, like it’s only for “crazy people.” Others think that going to counseling means they have failed as a parent. Nothing could be further from the truth. The reality is that all families could use some help. This is especially true if your kiddos have experienced trauma, which almost all children impacted by adoption or foster care have experienced. If you are starting to feel overwhelmed, take the initiative and find a trauma-informed therapist who can help your kids (and you) get on the road to healing.
What has been most helpful for you when parenting children who have experienced trauma? Which of the three keys could you implement in your parenting today?
If you want more help with parenting children impacted by adoption or foster care, understanding the impact of trauma on your child and their attachment, and getting the support you need, check out our new book Replanted: Faith-Based Support for Adoptive and Foster Families.
About the Author
Jenn Ranter Hook, MA, is the Founder and Executive Director of Replanted – a ministry that helps empower the church to support adoptive and foster families by providing emotional, tangible, and informational support. She is the Director of the Replanted Conference – an annual conference to support foster parents, adoptive parents, and kinship caregivers. She received her Master’s Degree in Clinical Psychology from Wheaton College. She previously worked as a trauma therapist for children and adolescents in foster care. She speaks frequently on topics related to adoption and foster care support, mental health, and trauma. She is the author of Replanted: Faith-based support for foster and adoptive families and lives in Dallas, TX with her husband Josh.