Helping Foster Children Cope with Early Trauma (Part 2)

In the previous article, we talked about the aftermath of trauma in a child’s life, and began discussing how foster parents can help your child along the path of healing. What else can foster parents do?

Creating physically safe climates

Children need an environment that is physically safe, where they are not hurt or threatened with physical harm. Parents should protect their child from adults who think threats or hitting are the way to “handle children”, and also from the violence of other children. This can be especially difficult (but necessary) if the abused child has developed a pattern of being physically aggressive. For example, his tendency to interpret small slights as threats can make him prone to getting into fights. You may have to invest considerable time in teaching your child how to deal with conflicts, how to problem-solve, and how to avoid violence.

Likewise, a child who has been sexually abused may have poor boundaries – making him vulnerable to others who would draw him into further sexual activity. He may even seek out opportunities to sexually act out. You would need to be aware of potentially harmful situations and be proactive about establishing boundaries and protecting him.

Facilitate emotional safety and healing

When a child has experienced so much emotional turmoil, he needs adults who are stable, predictable and honest in their emotions. Your child needs to be able to learn to appropriately respond to you. The more consistent you are, the easier it will be for your child to learn what is appropriate.

To overcome the child’s very negative outlook, a great number of positives are needed in that learning process: love, nurturing, kindness, compassion, empathy and encouragement are essential. But this is not to say that you should let your child “get away” with doing wrong. Rather, right and wrong need to be made clear, but with patience and consistency, rather than anger and abuse.

Teach management of emotions

Children with dysregulated emotions need to be actively taught how to manage their fears, anger, and sadness. You may have to explain strategies for coping with emotions that inexplicably rise up in your child. A child who is frightened may need to be shown how to play and enjoy playtime. For example, a tensed child has to develop the capacity to relax and be happy. We expect that children will “naturally” just go and play, but a traumatized child may need for the adult to plan and provide healthy, nurturing emotional and relational experiences.

Teach new cognitive skills

Likewise, in the midst of a conflict, you may have to step in and explain how to resolve the issue. You can patiently discuss and brainstorm with your child how to solve relational problems. Step by step, you can help your child think situations through to understand what happened and why. Eventually, the emotional and cognitive teaching will give your child new insights and skills. Over time, you will see that he can manage situations that he could not handle before, and he will become competent, just as other children are.

Don’t neglect self-care

In order to do all the above, foster parents need to have good emotional control. You cannot respond on a whim, but will have to think about how to handle the current situation wisely. It can be difficult, in the moment, to be aware of and manage your own feelings, but it really is necessary. You need a support system where you can sort things out and discuss how best to deal with your child’s problems. That is, as a foster parent, you need other adults who can be encouraging and insightful. You could get connected to a support group, and don’t hesitate to seek out professional help when dealing with these difficult issues.

It is without a doubt that much time, effort and love will be required on the part of foster parents taking care of children who have gone through early childhood trauma. However, you can take heart in knowing that your efforts will go a long way in the child’s recovery process.

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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