Delayed Effects of Trauma in Foster/Adoptive Families

Delayed Effects of Trauma in Foster/Adoptive Families

  • We potential adoptive/foster parents study the science of trauma. 
  • We learn about the five Bs affected by Trauma.
  • Foster/adoptive parents take all the classes and hear all the reports about how the kiddos were neglected/abused, etc.
  •  Then we willingly sign on the dotted line and say, “Yep, I’m in.” 

Adoptive/foster parents are not saints or superheroes. 

Adoptive/Foster parents are just regular people who want to part of the solution. We want to build safe/secure/family oriented environments for kiddos who have had trauma.

We are called special, saints, have patience, etc… when we bring the kiddos home. When they start exhibiting behaviors as a result of the trauma, suddenly we are bad parents. I’ve been there, along with the multitude of foster/adoptive parents who contact me.

I was on the phone with an adoptive/foster parent the other day. One of her seven kiddos exhibiting some violent and destructive behavior. It was evident that she was beating herself up, i.e. blaming herself. I asked her a question that I ask all parents in this scenario – How are your other kids doing? Have you successfully parented them? Every time the answer is slow to come, almost as if it’s something the parents haven’t thought about. “Yes,” she said haltingly. I knew the answer before I asked the question. It’s a question to change the focus. We adopted/foster parents are not responsible for the trauma kids experienced before they entered the home or the effects of it. We try to be. We want hope and healing for these kiddos more than anyone else.

Trauma doesn’t always exhibit after effects right away.

Here’s a key point. Trauma doesn’t always show the effects right away. There sometimes seems to be a delayed reaction.

When I was eight, I had a serious bicycle accident. I flew over the handlebars and landed on my head after sailing over a speed bump. I woke up on in the ER to a doctor pulling rocks out of my face with a tweezer-like tool. I got off the table and said, “This is a dream.” It was pretty horrific. I was placed in a room with another young girl. She was hooked up to wires and monitors. She was in a coma. I overheard the doctor and parents talking about the car accident she had been in a year earlier. Her body was exhibiting the after-effects of the trauma now. A year later, her body was shutting down. (This really freaked me out!)

This is a physical example of what the body may do. In the book, The Body Keeps Score, Van Der Kolk, M.D. says:

“There have in fact been hundreds of scientific publications spanning well over a century documenting how the memory of trauma can be repressed only to resurface years or decades later.”

The Honeymoon Phase

Adoptive/foster parents go through a honeymoon phase with kiddos similar to what young couples go through after the wedding. Everyone is polite, kind, trying to please and be accepted. Then it gets too exhausting. We wives wipe off the makeup and put on our yoga pants because now we feel comfortable enough to be our real selves. Yes, sometimes we take it too far (raising my hand here). 

The adopted/foster kiddos version of this is – I feel secure enough to go back to who I was. I don’t have to perform anymore. Or, the opposite end of the spectrum, they’re going to harm me, just like everyone else did, so I’m going to control my environment. I’m not saying these kiddos are doing this consciously or planning it out in their journal. It’s just the survival mode response. We all have it to varying degrees. Parenting the Hurt Child explains it this way:

“The struggle, however, represents something completely different for parents than it does for children. While the parents are simply trying to get the child to accomplish a simple task — such as dressing for school, getting ready for dinner or picking up his toys — the child is involved in a struggle to survive. He resists the intrusion and direction by others and perceives it as a fight for his life. As a result, his behavior becomes stubborn, tenacious, and intense. Think about it — how hard would you struggle if you thought that giving up or giving in would mean certain death?”

Be kind to Foster/Adoptive Parents

On a final note, be kind to adoptive/foster parents. You really have no idea what they are going through (unless you are one). Even if you are an advocate or therapist, you’re still behind a veil. You may know more than others, but you haven’t truly experienced the after-effects of trauma.

We foster/adoptive parents are doing the best we can. We need cheerleaders and prayer warriors more than we need judgement for our kiddos’ behaviors.

The Five Bs Affected by Trauma Part 5- Behavior

This is the last in the series on “The Five Bs Affected by Trauma”, you if you missed the rest, start here. Also, hop on over to the printable resource page for a copy of “How Trauma Affects Kids.”

Science says there are five Bs affected by trauma, and we cannot overlook them. In kids from hard places, behavioral disorders are a symptom of the effect trauma has had on their development. 

Negative behaviors will be taken care of once a child is securely attached. To achieve that, we must start with the five Bs and work our way out from there.

Behavior

Behavior — an altered ability to self-regulate in response to stressors. This can manifest as impulsiveness, self-destructive behavior, aggressive behavior, excessive compliance, sleep disturbances, eating disorders, substance abuse, a re-enactment of their traumatic past, or pathological self-soothing behaviors.

This is the one we seem to put the most emphasis on. Why can’t this kid just behave? 

Children from hard places have an altered ability to self-regulate in response to stressors. Kids are impulsive! 

When a baby is born, the mother regulates for him. She feeds him when he is hungry. Wraps him in a blanket when he is cold. She rocks him to sleep when he is tired. When he gets a bit older, he begins to co-regulate, this is the two-year-old who gets the juice out of the fridge and pours himself a glass and gets it all over the counter. He begins to recognize his needs and try to meet them. Self-regulated is the final destination of this journey. This is when a teen or young adult can regulate himself. He drinks water and doesn’t become dehydrated. He eats food. He sleeps when he is tired. He starts handling his bank account on his own.

 Children from hard places often have this cycle of regulation broken. Their needs are not met consistently. They miss the season of co-regulation. As a child, they don’t recognize their own body’s signals for food and water. Their sleeping patterns are messed up. They walk around slightly dehydrated. They don’t eat enough or do the opposite. Gorge. 

What we see on our end is dysregulation. A child who can’t sit still. A child who fidgets. Speaks out of turn. Who doesn’t listen.

Key to Remember – “Good/excited stress loads in a child from a hard place in much the same way as bad/traumatic stress. Generally, a child cannot tell the difference.” – ETC

As a result, children from hard places often experience heightened and persistent levels of stress and fear, driving them to develop an array of survival tactics and inappropriate behavioral responses. However, as Dr. Purvis reminds us: Every behavior has a purpose and a function. Behind every behavior and misbehavior is a need, and we must come to view our children’s needs not as something negative but as something very positive. Needs are one of the primary ways that God uses to bring people into a relationship with others and with Himself. So, we need to learn to follow the needs of our children.

Behavior is a need however inappropriately expressed.

 “It’s can’t, not won’t.”

Many children from hard places deal with heightened levels of stress and fear. In order to help our children heal and move forward, it is critical that parents understand how pervasive fear can be and what it looks like in our children’s behaviors and responses.

Fear is much more than a feeling. Fear is a state of being, and for many children from hard places, it has become a way of life.

There are three ways that children from hard places typically respond to fear and stress:

  1. Fight- frustration, explosive or aggressive, resistive, acting out, saying “I won’t, You can’t make me!”
  2. Flight- Goofy, Physically or emotionally distracting behavior, running, escaping behaviors, distractible, clowning, redirecting, easily bored, effectively saying, “I’m out of here.”
  3. Freeze- Body is often not receiving signals from the brain- whiny, tearful, clingy, fearful, reluctant to separate or to try new things, withdrawing, hiding, saying “I can’t!”

THERE IS A DIFFERENCE BETWEEN FEELING SAFE AND BEING SAFE!

Instead of asking, What are you afraid of, ask, what do you need?

In order to truly address the issue of fear, we will need to create a sense of felt-safety for the child.

 Key to remember-You provide felt-safety when you arrange the environment and adjust your behavior so that the child can feel safe.  Felt safety is just as important and real as actual safety, even for adults. Think of a time that you were perfectly safe and yet you had anxiety. Everyone has something that raises their anxiety level. It could be heights, snakes, spiders, elevators, flying, or crowds. 

Now think about how you react to those around you when confronted with those fears, and you’ll understand your children’s behavior better.

Want to hear more about behavior?

In this episode of Positive Adoption, Kathleen continues the series on the Five Bs affected by trauma with “Behavior.” Behavior — an altered ability to self-regulate in response to stressors. This can manifest as impulsiveness, self destructive behavior, aggressive behavior, excessive compliance, sleep disturbances, eating disorders, substance abuse, re-enactment of their traumatic past, or pathological self soothing behaviors. Grab a cup of coffee and join Kathleen as she finishes this series!


What Does a Trauma-Informed Church Look Like? Part 1

A question I received via email in response to 3 Steps Every Church Can Take To Become Trauma-Informed is “What does a trauma-informed church look like?”

That’s a great question with a complex answer. I’m going to tackle it anyway.

First and foremost, trauma-informed churches are more about relationship than they are about proper behavior. As I said in the article linked above, trauma is a buzzword. Churches are hopping on the bandwagon and saying they are sensitive to attenders who have had trauma, all the while, making sure everyone’s behavior measures up. I’m going to focus on kids here because that’s what I’m trained in (mostly through experience).

Trauma-informed churches don’t expect kids to regulate (behave).

Most churches who are trauma-informed say that relationship trumps behavior. Acknowledging the idea is a great start. Do they follow through?

At- risk children can easily feel alienated and cornered, alone against the world. Feeling that way, it almost guaranteed that they will come out fighting, manipulating or fleeing. Then the only adult attention they receive is endless scolding and punishment. Soon this dysfunctional dynamic becomes a habit, and the the children learn to seek familiar and available attention by acting out. What a scary and miserable way to live!

The Connected Child

When a child can’t stay in a seat for worship, is the behavior a detriment to the relationship? In other words, will the child be put in time-out, shamed, sent back to parents, berated, or fill in the blank? Does sitting in a seat, being in an environment that produces sensory overload, or the inability to regulate due to stressors cause a break in the relationship? Is the child put on the chopping block and asked to measure up to a standard before he is accepted? This is not what a trauma-informed church looks like.

The concept of “being good” in church.

I totally understand the concept of “being good” in church. When I my kiddos were younger and I sang in the choir. I had to be at church early for warm-ups. With hubby out of town or at work, all seven of my kiddos had to sit on the front row while I was up on the risers with the choir. I got pretty durn good and shooting looks at my kiddos that meant “behave or else!” I grew up in an era when everyone had to be respectful to adults, especially those in the ministry no matter how we felt about it. If I got in trouble at church or school, I was sure to get double trouble at home. No explaining away my behavior. No excuses. Kids submitted to authority or suffered the consequences. If you grew up like I did, it may be difficult to shift gears to a new way of thinking especially in a spiritual or religious setting.

A new way of thinking about behavior.

Things have changed. Science has discovered many ways that trauma effects kids. I have written many articles about that, for the sake of brevity, let’s say – Kids who have had trauma cannot behave, not – will not behave. When Sunday school teachers, children’s church workers, youth leaders get that scientific fact firmly placed in their belt of truth, we will see more effective ministry for kids who have had trauma. If we want our churches to be trauma-informed, we’ll be the adults that say, “It’s up to us to figure out what works to build relationship with each child.”

Start with talking to the parents (or whomever brings them to church).

Trauma-informed churches ask foster parents, adoptive parents, parents of kids with capital letter syndromes what the kiddo needs to feel safe and what helps the child regulate. Trauma-informed churches put needs of kids who have had trauma on the list right next to severe allergies. If one child cannot have peanuts and another goes into overload if the music is too loud, skip the peanuts and have some noise reducing headphones. It looks like an away room with headphones, adults to help a kiddo regulate, and someone to connect with even if there has to be a correction first. Especially if there has to be a correction first.

If you need help with how to train your staff on correcting, try the “Instead of Tips” here and download a printable resource here. Trauma-informed churches have a system set up that everyone can follow. All of the staff and volunteers use the same approach which give another layer of felt-safety to the kiddos. If you’re interested in an e-course to accompany the graphic, make sure you get on our email list to get the link when it’s live.

A short word on Teens

If a group of teens comes to the after-school program at your church and you know they have had various levels of trauma, make sure you have trauma-trained staff to supervise. This usually means more staff, more supervision, and more structure.

It’s a fallacy to think when teens who have had trauma or a capital letter syndrome will be able to regulate just because they have large bodies. The truth is most of these kiddos are half their physical age emotionally. Teens with large bodies and little ability to self-regulate in response to stressors can quickly spiral out of control.

I’ll continue this line of thought in one of my articles.

When Teens Who Have Had Trauma Are Judged More Harshly for Their Behavior

This week on the podcast, the topic was “Kids With Capital Letter Syndromes Are People Too.” Lori and I talked a bit about how teens who have had trauma or a capital letter syndrome don’t know how to act differently in front of adults. By that I mean, they don’t put up false fronts while adults are in the room and then go back to misbehaving when they leave.

Judging Teens Who Have Had Trauma

Teens who have had trauma are judged differently for their behavior than kids from traditional two-parent families. When we’re talking about teens from traditional two-parent homes, we tend to say things like “they’re just sowing their wild oats” or “teens will be teens.” We naturally assume they’re exploring, finding their own way, etc. When we’re talking about adopted kids, foster kids, or kids who have had trauma, however, we tend to take a different perspective and jump to the conclusion that they are just bad kids.

If a kid in a two-parent home wrecks a car because he’s buzzed or drunk, it’s kept on the down-low. But if a kid from a traumatic background flips a car because they panic at being near an abuser’s home, then they’re just “crazy” and “wild.” The incident becomes a story TOLD about them as if they’re just messed up and horrible and careless and ungrateful. 

If a kid in a stable, two-parent home is confronted with something they did wrong, they might get a little angry, but they also know the language of remorse (genuine or not). They know how to say sorry and how to stop. Kids from hard places often don’t.

The Social Age Factor

Also, because of the social age difference, trauma kids end up being labeled “bad” for things they do out of immaturity. They are perceived to be willfully acting immaturely because we assume they possess a certain level of maturity based on their physical age and appearance. However, physical maturity does not always correspond to emotional or social maturity.

Kids with trauma issues have a harder time hiding behavior or putting on the brakes. They’re caught more often, and they tend to lean into the destructive behavior when they’re caught and told to stop, whereas non-trauma kids might be better at genuinely stopping, hiding their behavior, or faking obedience.

The Effects of Neglect and Abuse

“Neglect and abuse delay cause-and-effect processing and, specifically, seeing accurately how our actions impact the world. When the infant cried in need (cause), there was no comfort response from the caregiver (effect). Over time, a child learns there is no connection between what they do and how others respond.” – Executive function #6 in Wounded Children, Healing Homes

Kids who have endured trauma end up giving themselves permission to behave badly because they THINK of themselves as trash.
Kids who have endured trauma end up giving themselves permission to behave badly because they THINK of themselves as trash.

Two-parent kids with a stable home life have this underlying perception of themselves as baseline GOOD, no matter WHAT their behavior is. Bad behavior is just something they’re DOING and can stop at any time. It’s not who they are.

Traumatized kids think that even neutral behavior is probably awful because it’s just who they are. They overhear discussions about themselves as the “bad” kid. Traumatized kids tend to blow up more spectacularly, and with only one parent, with foster parents, or with an entire community watching them, it’s not as hush-hush.

“Bad kids” are “bad kids” because when they’re caught, they act angry and “selfish.” They don’t apologize, they internalize self-hatred, they shift the blame, and they sometimes blow up more in retaliation.

An Inability to Self-Check

“Monitoring refers to the ability to self-check work as you go. …It is tempting to jump to the conclusion that the child is willfully unmotivated to self-monitor, and for some kids, that may be true. … for children whose brain development is affected by exposure to complex trauma, the capacity to monitor may be outside of the realm of will power.” – Executive function #3 in Wounded Children, Healing Homes

When a child can’t monitor or self-check, more behaviors are evident as he tries to negotiate needs. His response to transitions or stimuli is over the top. When that child becomes a teen, his body size makes his reactions appear more violent (because they are). When a 16-year-old hits a wall, his fist goes through it, whereas a 4-year-old would just hurt his fist. Remember that the social age factor is in play here.

What Do We Do With This Information?

What do we see first when observing teens? The way they act. I get it. As my mom said when I was a teen, “You only have one chance to make a good first impression.” When ministering to teens from hard places, throw that out the window. Don’t discount the first impression, but learn to look beyond the behavior. Just because the teen isn’t polite or sweet doesn’t mean we should pull out the judgment card.

Look Beyond the Behavior and Love the Person

“Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” – Gal. 6:2

A teen who has had trauma in their life has some heavy burdens. Lighten the load by giving them some grace. Don’t be so quick to judge. Look beyond the behavior to the need. What does that teen need? Does he need a listening ear? Does he need you to help him figure out some coping skills? Maybe he just needs an adult to say, “I’ve been through some junk, too. I hear you. You aren’t alone.”

Remember the Social Age of the Teen

Teens and kiddos alike hear this all the time: “Act your age!” Guess what? Kids and teens from hard places are acting their age.

Typically, a child who had trauma is, emotionally, half his physical age (many times, the gap is even greater). You know what’s great about that? You can appeal to their inner child. You can play with them. Teens love to play. They love games with Nerf guns, squirt guns or  _______ (fill in the blank).

Meet the teens where they are at emotionally, not physically. Don’t let their size fool you! They need to play! This disarms a child’s fear, and the result of that is more regulation.

Remember, don’t judge a teen by his behavior. If he has had trauma, he may not be skilled in the area of hiding behavior or putting on the brakes. Look beyond the behavior to the need. What does that teen need? Look through your trauma-informed lens and see the teen.