One Reason Trauma-Informed Parenting is Key
Let me start by prefacing this: every case is different and every child needs different things.
We are over a year into foster care and we’ve only ever known the needs of one precious boy. His needs have drastically changed since he came to us and that’s been a great thing. Less needs means improvement.
What I’ve outlined below is a brief breakdown of what it can mean to be trauma-informed as a foster parent.
A Child’s Brain on Stress
You see, bodies under stress release symptoms of trauma like a slow leak. When children undergo repetitive trauma, sometimes called ‘weathering’ (more frequently referenced in conversations about micro-aggression), the brain creates new baseline levels of stress maintenance.
Confusing? Sure. But think of it like tolerance of caffeine. The first time you start drinking coffee, just a half a cup wakes you right up. Fast forward two years in to consistent coffee drinking, and you’re sure to need at least one cup to feel that jolt.
Stress does the same thing to a kid’s brain. Consistent, unrelenting stress from unmet affection, nutrition, proper sleep, appropriate boundaries, or physical/emotional/sexual abuse will dull the brain’s ability to respond with force to that stress. Kids get numb so their ability to thrive in a non-stressful environment is slow to awaken. A child who has undergone trauma will struggle to process the peacefulness of a safe environment for some time so behaviors and health struggles will seep out slowly.
The Honeymoon Period
In foster care training, the beginning of your time with a new child in your home is called the honeymoon period. You’ll be placed with a child and the first few nights or even weeks will seem like magic. You’ll wonder how they managed to make it through their experience with such balance.
And then whatever bliss you experienced will just come crashing down. The child will get an ear infection, they’ll lash out in response to a request, or start shutting down at a single question. Their brains can finally process the trauma they’ve been through because they’re in a safe, unthreatening environment and now it’s your job as a foster parent to hold strong and be that provision of security and safety despite their shifting behavior.
Responding to the “Slow Leak”
The key to responding to this ‘slow leak’ of trauma-induced behaviors is consistency. The best thing you can do for a child adjusting to stability and safety is the maintenance of that stability and safety.
If a child is accustomed to (insert any abuse or neglect) in their life with previous caregivers, the child’s brain’s will, in a way, test if this new found consistent stability in your home is really valid.
Let’s say the child you are fostering was verbally and emotionally abused. Every time she made a simple mistake at home, her previous caregiver would lash out and scream at her. Spilling a glass of water could warrant a 20-minute screaming lecture on how she is ‘stupid,’ and how her parents ‘wish she’d never been born.’ Now that she’s in your home, her brain is slowly getting accustomed to this new stability and calm. Yes, she’s starting to relax in a sense, but her brain is still on edge until an adverse event ‘triggers’ an old response to a familiar situation.
In the case of being verbally abused after dropped water at her home of origin, this little girl maybe froze in front of her verbally abusive parent, internalize everything screamed at her, and act out against her peers at school. If a similar incident like dropping water happens in your home, her brain will remember the last time she made a mistake and likely respond in the same way, despite the new environment.
In essence, it will be up to you to continue responding and communicating to her that you’re safe so her brain can reroute its response to adverse stimuli. The goal is to break the chain of traumatic-informed behavior.
Next Step Resources
I’m not a therapist, doctor, or even a profusely experienced foster parent. I’ve read a lot—but I’m sure there’s more to understand.
As a foster parent, knowing how to care for kids who come from hard places is paramount if you’re going to survive any length of time loving the child in your home past the honeymoon period. Thankfully tere’s a lot available in the area of trauma-informed caregiving.
Click the links below to find some helpful resources on caring for kids who have experienced trauma and neglect.
If you're a foster or adoptive parent, please share your best practices and thoughts below in the comments! I'd love to know what you think!