Parenting is a challenge under the best circumstances, so when your child is experiencing trauma or posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), it can be especially difficult to understand how to help them heal, grow and thrive at home. But with a little understanding and a lot of love, you can make an impact.
Defining Trauma and PTSD
Trauma is an intense negative event that emotionally affects a person – by definition, it’s something that causes or threatens harm. Foster children may have experienced trauma from abuse, neglect, poverty, bullying or other situations before entering the child welfare system. Entering the system itself can also be traumatic due to separation from loved ones.
PTSD (Posttraumatic Stress Disorder) is caused by severe trauma and presents specific symptoms:
- Re-experiencing/reimaging the traumatic event (through flashbacks or nightmares)
- Avoidance (distressing memories and reminders about the event)
- Persistent negative feelings and mood
- Altered arousal (reckless behavior, persistent sleep disturbance)
When children and young adults have experienced trauma or suffer from PTSD, their bodies, brains, emotions and behavior are all affected. Children react to trauma in ways that may be hard for parents to distinguish from simple “bad” behavior. It also varies by the child’s age – a toddler may be clingy where a middle schooler may be withdrawn, and a teenager may be aggressive. As a parent, it’s important to observe your child. Note symptoms that are severe or interfere with school or home life if you suspect he or she has been impacted by trauma. The Child Welfare Information Gateway provides a factsheet with details about the symptoms of childhood trauma.
Care at Home
Helping your child through trauma begins at home. These tips can help guide you in creating the safe, supportive and nurturing environment they need:
- Identify triggers: Something you say or do, or something in your home environment, could be triggering your child’s traumatic memories. Pay attention to what distracts or scares him or her, or emotions that don’t seem to fit a situation.
- Stay present: Offer encouragement, reassurance and attention in whatever way your child needs at the moment. If your child wants to talk about their experience, be available to listen.
- Control your emotions: Even in the most trying situations, it’s important to remain calm, lower your voice and listen to your child. Don’t take behavior personally or attempt to physically punish them. Recovery is different for each child, so be patient!
- Create consistency: Regular routines are an important way to help a traumatized child feel stable and secure.
- Encourage and empower: Create positive experiences to boost self-esteem, teach relaxation techniques like deep breathing or affirmations and allow age-appropriate choices to help your child feel in control.
It’s likely that a traumatized child will need professional help beyond what you can provide at home. Early intervention is key. Be sure to ask your caseworker if your foster child has been screened for trauma and bring up any concerns you have about his or her emotional well-being. A professional mental health assessment is important to get children on the right path to recovery.
Personalized treatment plans for childhood victims of trauma may include cognitive behavioral therapy to manage situations and emotions or medication for depression and anxiety.
SAFY can help you navigate your options. We have behavioral health resources designed to address trauma and PTSD, among other mental health issues. Additionally, our therapeutic foster care is specifically designed to support youth experiencing trauma and other complex problems.
You Make a Difference
Parenting a traumatized child can be difficult. You may feel isolated, exhausted or frustrated. However, by opening your home and heart you are already on the right path to helping your child heal – your support and understanding can make all the difference.
SAFY is dedicated to family, youth and mental health support. Contact us today to learn how we can help.