We Must Understand Trauma

By Ashley Phelan
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Man and Woman talking

November is National Adoption Month and chances are that if you are reading this blog post, that you have a special place in your heart for kids who are in care.  You may or may not realize that we can each play a vital part in enhancing the lives of children and youth in foster care. This can be through welcoming a child into your home, helping and cheering on families in reunifying, providing respite, praying for kids and families, etc.  Each role is important and needed.  Not everyone feels called by God to foster specifically, but everyone can do something.  Your “something” can be everything to a child, especially to a child in foster care. 

My “something” is through the role and calling of social work.  I love working with and supporting foster families and children.  What an honor it is to walk alongside those who find themselves on this tender journey.  I’ve learned many things. Some the hard way.  One of the biggest things that I’ve come to believe deeply is that we all must become trauma-informed in order to provide excellent care to children in the foster system.  Not only that, but we must also understand the loss and trauma that children endured before being welcomed into our arms and homes.  

A Trauma Example

A couple of years ago, a gentleman in our community asked me for some advice.  He serves in ministry and deeply cares for hurting kids.  He was meeting with and counseling a 13-year-old girl and her family.  She had been struggling with a sense of abandonment, and as a result, was cutting herself.  Her family and her constantly argued. She never felt like she belonged or was fully understood.  Understandably, her family was very concerned and sought counsel with this gentleman and his ministry.  As much as this gentleman wanted to help and continued to meet with the family, he and her parents could not get the girl to stop engaging in such harmful behaviors.  Things were only getting worse, and he was now trying to seek advice from others. Which ultimately led to our conversation.

Teen girl in couseling

As I spoke with this gentleman, I began to ask some probing questions.  Long story short, I discovered that this girl had been removed from her biological parents at birth. Then placed into her current family through foster care.  The gentleman told me that the girl had brought that up several times in conversation, but that neither he nor the parents felt like that mattered since she was adopted shortly after birth, as her birth parents were unable to reunify. Her adoptive parents assumed that she didn’t endure any trauma or pain.  They believed that, since she didn’t consciously remember leaving her first family for her adoptive parents, it would have nothing to do with what she was feeling and experiencing now. 

Did Not Understand Trauma

Unfortunately, this gentleman, with all his good intentions, did not understand trauma.  He, together with this girl’s parents, were only making matters worse.  In knowing the full story, of course, it made sense that this sweet girl was grappling with abandonment, belonging, and desiring to be heard.  The symptom of a bigger heart hurt were her cutting, and other disruptive behaviors.  She was desperate to make sense of her story. Which included what happened to her even before she was born.  That was the missing piece. The necessary parenting and counseling trauma-informed filter that kept everyone from achieving a breakthrough.

If you’ve spent much time around me, or my co-workers, you’ve probably heard us use the term “trauma” often.  I often joke that people probably get sick of me constantly bringing behaviors, personalities, relationships, addictions, health, development, etc. all back to, you guessed it, trauma.  That’s because one out of every two children has a history of trauma. Trauma does not only apply to foster care or adoption. Beyond that, every child who comes into foster care has a history of trauma. 

Trauma affects the brain, body, biology, beliefs, and behavior of a child.  Therefore, trauma is not a side effect of the foster care system, it is the central concern.  Trauma associated with abandonment/separation, repeated childhood maltreatment, neglect, physical or sexual abuse, and exploitation can become the central defining characteristic of a child’s identity. Impacting nearly every aspect of his or her life, just like the girl mentioned above.  Trauma robs children and youth of who they were supposed to be. But, there’s hope through the power of one caring adult!).  


Well, I’m sure you can gather that this is what I informed the gentleman who came to me for advice.  I do believe he had the best of intentions in caring for and counseling that family.  But without the right tools, he and the family wasn’t going to get very far.  I’m happy to report that they have taken the appropriate steps and are now on the road to healing. And the cutting has subsided.

Friends, we have to be trauma-informed!  If families and professionals are not trauma-informed, they can potentially, and unintentionally, harm and hurt their children.  This was the case for the family mentioned to me .Please don’t be that family or professional.  If we are going to do right by children, we must do all we can to understand their trauma and love them well.  Once we know better, it is our responsibility to do better.

Copyright © 2020, Ashley Phelan

Wait No More
Focus on the Family’s Wait No More program prepares hearts and homes for children in foster care. Everyone who feels called to foster, adopt or support a foster/adoptive family can be involved through our nationwide events and resources. Each day, we help advocate for kids in foster care to experience the love of family, no matter how long they’ve waited.
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