What is Trauma?
Childhood trauma is an extremely important concept to understand as a foster carer, due to the widespread belief that almost all children in care have been exposed to some form of trauma. The very act of being put in foster care can be traumatic for children, because it means a separation from their family, friends, community and everything that is familiar. Due to added issues such as neglect, sexual abuse, physical abuse, or domestic violence, some of these children have had experiences so terrifying and disturbing that the memories of these events are problems in and of themselves. After the event has ended, the experience plays itself out repeatedly in their minds. The thoughts, emotions, and feelings of being out of control and threatened are re-experienced, as is the fear, anxiety, and pain associated with the event (Child Trauma Academy, 2002). As foster carers you may see these struggles reflected in a host of challenging behaviours such as nightmares or flashbacks, regressive behaviours or immobility, an inability to pay attention, angry outbursts, or even suicidal thoughts. To provide optimum care for these children, and to make sure that they respond in an appropriate way, foster carers need to understand trauma; what it is, how it impacts child behaviour, and how best to respond.
Trauma is typically defined as a psychologically distressing event that is outside the range of usual human experience. It generally results in an abnormally intense and prolonged stress response. When we as adults think of traumatic events we usually envisage accidents, illnesses or bereavements; typical events in which our fundamental coping skills are pushed to their limits. Similarly, child traumatic stress occurs when children and adolescents are exposed to events or situations that overwhelm their ability to cope and engage with daily life, with it also overpowering their ability to function and interact with others.
Research is shifting the way that professionals view and treat children who have experienced trauma by providing biological explanations for what had traditionally been described in psychological, emotional, and behavioral terms. A growing body of research into children’s brain development is shedding new light on the ways that neglect and abuse changes the structure and chemical activity of the brain and the resulting emotional and behavioural functioning of the child. Early childhood trauma has been associated with reducing the size of the brain cortex. This area of the brain is responsible for many complex functions including memory, attention, perceptual awareness, thinking, language, and consciousness. These changes may affect IQ and the ability to regulate emotions. Children may also become more fearful and feel less safe or protected. As such, as foster carers, it is imperative that we remember that it may not always be the case that a young person is being oppositional or defiant towards us, but may instead be a result of physiological damage to the brain due to trauma, leaving it impossible for our young person to listen to direction, or remember routines and boundaries in our homes. Young people who have experienced traumatic events may re-enact past patterns when they feel unsafe or encounter a trigger. It may be a sound, smell, place or even tone of voice that triggers a traumatic response. However, responses to triggers are best thought of as reflexes – they are not deliberate or planned. When children’s bodies and brains are overwhelmed by a traumatic memory, they are not able to consider the consequences of their behaviour or its effect on others.
When children have experienced trauma, particularly multiple traumatic events over an extended period of time, their bodies, brains, and nervous systems adapt in an effort to protect them. This might result in behaviours such as increased aggression, distrusting or disobeying adults, or even dissociation (feeling disconnected from reality). When children are in danger, these behaviours may be important for their survival. However, once children are moved to a safer environment, their brains and bodies may not recognise that the danger has passed. These protective behaviours, or habits, have grown strong from frequent use. It takes time and retraining to help those survival muscles learn that they are not needed in their new situation and that they can relax. It will take time and patience for your young person’s body and brain to learn to respond in ways that are more appropriate for his or her current, safe environment.
Tips for dealing with Trauma:
- Be patient and consistent in your response and do not take children’s behavior personally.
- Do not to expect to learn immediately about all the trauma the child has experienced. Some of the trauma’s effects may not become apparent for months or even years and could appear as a result of a trigger which you may be completely unaware of.
- Never be afraid to reach out for help and advice from others. Carer support groups can be a great source of information as the majority of carers have dealt with similar issues in the past.
- Educate yourself regarding the impact of stress and trauma on families. There are many resources available through your Link Social Worker, online through sources such as YouTube videos, or training events within FFI. Trauma Training, Advanced Attachment Training and Therapeutic Crisis Intervention for Families are all courses available to you which look in depth at trauma and how best to manage it.
- Self-awareness: recognise the impact of trauma in your own life and how it has affected your own coping mechanisms. This can lead you to be able to empathise with how some of these children are feeling.
If you think you could make a difference in the life of a young person who has suffered trauma, contact FFI today on 01-4171944.