Helping Foster Children Cope with Early Trauma

Fostering Children with Early Childhood Trauma (Part 1)
It is a sad reality that some children have gone through very stressful situations in their early childhood, like being physically abused, neglected, sexually assaulted or abandoned. Foster parents should be aware of the consequences of such trauma, and what you can do to help.

Understanding the Effects of Trauma
These children may experience biological changes that significantly affect them for many years. During these critical early years, when the child should have been developing emotional control and good thought processes, he could have been in a state of stress and crisis, trying to survive. Later, the child may have immaturities of emotions and thinking, for example a ten-year-old child throwing tantrums like a two-year-old. When the child has immature control mechanisms for his emotions and thinking, severe trauma can cause the child to experience extremely intense emotions. He would not be able to cope, and the emotions may overwhelm him.

Years after the trauma, the child may continue to have a “physiological dysregulation.” The control mechanisms that should have developed in his young body seem to have gone awry. The body seems to run too fast or at times too slow. When the body runs too fast, the heart rate and blood pressure stay high, and the child appears hyperactive and even manic. A child may overreact to simple stimuli, where small slights may be perceived as threats. For example, a fire drill may be exciting for other children, but a traumatized child may become hysterical and fearful even hours later. Also, if the child happens to encounter a situation or stimulus that reminds him of the trauma, he may hyper-react, suddenly becoming extremely anxious or even aggressive.

Other children may have a body response that is chronically too slow, meaning a child may have a heart rate and blood pressure that stay too low. He may be withdrawn, frozen and afraid, even in circumstances that seem safe to everyone else. He may see himself as helpless and the world as a hopeless place and he may prefer to stay emotionally numb.

Thinking and logical processes may also be disrupted. The child may find difficulty focusing and paying attention, not be able to cope with new stresses and have trouble adjusting to new situations. He may have trouble figuring things out and become unreasonably frustrated or angry when faced with a problem.

Many traumatized children may also have trouble sleeping. Especially when children are abused at bedtime, they may be very anxious in the evening and have trouble falling asleep. Others may experience nightmares or bedwetting. Some also may have digestive problems from the continuing anxiety and others may overeat to comfort themselves. Some children may complain of odd aches – headaches or muscle aches, as if the chronic tension of their anxieties is being carried in their muscles.

How Foster Parents Can Help
If you suspect that your child has experienced significant trauma and are seeing characteristics such as those mentioned above, first seek help from mental health professionals. They can provide information and guide you as to whether formal therapy is needed. It is best if the therapy plan also includes you, the foster parents, as you would be the ones to manage the day-to-day ups and downs of a child whose emotions swing and whose fears interfere with daily living. You will be given advice specific to your child, and can have an avenue to talk about the difficulties you may experience.

Talking about the trauma can help a person dissipate some of the emotions and bring a sense of perspective, but talking about it usually doesn’t come easy for a child. A therapist who is skilled in helping a child express himself may be the person that the child talks to, but a child is just as likely to talk to an adult caretaker who makes the child feel safe, who will patiently listen and be supportive of the child. The key is, when your child opens up, listen patiently. Tell him that you are very sorry that the abuse happened. Remind him that you are here with him now to help keep him safe.

For children who refuse to talk about the trauma they experienced, therapists can use play therapy or other expressive therapies, such as art, to help a child express what happened. Often a child does not know how to describe what he is thinking, feeling, or remembering. Especially if the trauma happened when he was very young, he may not have the words to describe what happened.

Fear and confusion may also keep a child from talking about the trauma. The scenes may be too frightening to face, or he may have been threatened into silence. The memories may not make logical sense, where he may have vivid scenes of events but cannot tell the sequence of what happened, or he may misperceive the actual events. As you patiently listen to what he does have to say, you can try to help him make sense of it and reassure him that you will help him face the memories.

Helping children recover from early traumatic experiences is an ongoing process. In the next article, we will talk about more ways to help your child in this area.

If you are a foster parent looking for more help and support in your fostering journey, please contact us at 6336 144/ fostering@family.org.sg.

Adapted from Handbook on Thriving as an Adoptive Family, a Focus on the Family Resource published by Tyndale House Publishers. © 2015 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved.

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