I first heard about being “trauma-informed” in my initial training for foster care. (Learn from my mistake: I should have read up on trauma way before the initial class.)
I remember thinking, “Since I am fostering younger kids, they won’t have these issues the trainer is discussing.” I was wrong. Being trauma-informed in foster care is not simply a good idea but a requirement.
Eight kids and four years later, I have had newborns to five-year-olds and every age in between. I have dealt with all kinds of trauma behaviors. Five-hour long tantrums. Food hoarding. Hiding. Attachment issues. Flashbacks. Food insecurity. And the list goes on.
If you are engaging with foster care, it is crucial that you understand the importance of being trauma-informed in foster care, who is impacted by trauma, and how to view children with trauma behaviors.
How to Tell If a Child in Foster Care Has Trauma
Did I fool you with that header? I hope not! Every single child in foster care has experienced trauma.
Trauma-informed foster care could just be labeled “foster care.” Even if the child was placed in your arms the day they were born, trauma has occurred. For months the baby heard their mom’s voice every day, smelled her, became comfortable with her womb—no matter mom’s environment. Then suddenly, mom is gone. For the first time in that baby’s life, everything they have known has been taken away, and they are left with a stranger.
Just the act of a child being removed from his or her parents is traumatic—even if it’s the safe and right choice. Foster parents need to fundamentally understand that their home is harrowing before it becomes a haven for kids in foster care.
In addition to the traumatic event of being placed in a foster home, children in foster care can have trauma from abuse, neglect, parent imprisonment or death, and a plethora of other traumatic events. Engaging in foster care as a parent means being involved with trauma and learning to be trauma-informed.
How to Tell If You Have Trauma
Have you ever been abused? Lost a loved one? Been through a natural disaster? Gone through a divorce as a child or adult? Been in a car wreck? Experienced a worldwide pandemic? Then you have some level of trauma.
Of course, the level to which trauma affects you differs from person to person and event to event. But in some way, shape, or form, we have all experienced trauma.
John 16:33 essential promises trauma while we wait for Christ to return. Unfortunately, trauma behaviors are not always easily pinpointed. Many adults do not even realize their reactions and behaviors are a result of trauma.
If you are involved in foster care, being trauma-informed includes being informed about your trauma and how it affects you. The biggest parenting realization I have had is that parenting is mostly about me and not the kids.
Why am I so unsettled when a child disrespects me? Because someone in my past has disrespected me, and I have not dealt with the hurt or forgiven that person. Why do I get so angry at my kids for making mistakes or messes? Because somewhere along the way, I was told perfection should be the standard.
Of course, parenting involves correcting a child and guiding them, but a lot of the work is self-evaluation and reflection. I have found therapy to be crucial in my journey to being trauma-informed working in foster care. Lots of past trauma and hurt has been triggered by my kids’ behaviors and stories. I learned that I needed to deal with that past trauma to be equipped to help them.
Being in foster care means self-reflection and working on the trauma you have personally experienced.
Stop Saying Kids Are Resilient
“At least this happened when she was little. Kids are so resilient,” the social worker said with a positive tone in her voice.
The child we were caring for had been abused, starved, and neglected. But it all seemed to be brushed off because the child was so young.
When an adult goes through a traumatic experience, that adult hopefully has had opportunities to build a foundation of healthy coping mechanisms and emotional skills needed to work through hard things. However, children are too young to have built any foundations for coping with trauma.
Adults often only think kids are resilient because kids lack the ability to express trauma the way adults do. Kids do not speak through words but through actions. Instead of saying, “I’m really struggling with knowing whether I will be getting another meal after struggling with food insecurity,” kids hoard food under their beds or start throwing tantrums if dinner is running three minutes late.
While adults communicate through words (most of the time), kids communicate through actions. A child is not exhibiting “bad behavior.” Rather, a child uses behavior to try to communicate needs or feelings. Being in foster care means recognizing there is no such thing as a “bad kid”—just kids trying to communicate their trauma through behavior.
Don’t Drink Orange Juice
At one of the many trauma parenting classes I have been to, a speaker told the story of a little girl, about six years old, who entered foster care. Typically, this little girl seemed to be relatively well behaved—except during breakfast. Every morning, the foster parents dealt with a huge tantrum from the girl.
They tried time-outs, offering food choices, and taking away screen time. Absolutely nothing worked. At the point of giving up, they reached out to the child’s social worker and got the child into therapy.
After working together with the therapist and social worker, the foster parents learned this little girl had been abused every morning by her mom’s boyfriend. And he always had a glass of orange juice with him. Any guesses on what the foster parents drank for breakfast each morning? Orange juice.
Now, is drinking orange juice wrong or does it signify that you will abuse a child? Of course not. But to that little girl, the smell and look of orange were synonymous with abuse.
This is how trauma works. It may seem random or just “bad behavior,” but if you take the time to listen, be patient, and recognize that the child is trying to tell you something, you are doing the work of being trauma-informed.
Being trauma-informed is not a list of “do’s” and “don’ts” but a willingness to work with and understand every child, their story, and what their behavior is trying to tell you.
The Importance of Trauma-Informed Foster Care
Being trauma-informed in foster care is not just learning a new way to discipline or enrolling your child in the latest therapy; it is a mindset. It is an understanding that every child in foster care has experienced trauma.
Being trauma-informed means understanding that your own trauma affects the way you parent. It is an understanding that there is no such thing as a bad kid but only kids who are trying to speak to us through behaviors.
Being trauma-informed involves constant education in the way the brain works, your child’s background, and your own background. It requires realizing that kids are not resilient; they simply express trauma differently than adults.
If I could speak to myself as I was sitting in the foster parent training class learning about trauma for the first time, I would say, “Enroll yourself in therapy now, start reading books on trauma, and constantly remind yourself how valuable God views each person.”
Ultimately, being trauma-informed is being informed on how valuable God views each person.