Trauma in Foster Children – Learning to Cope and Heal

(Oringally published Oct. 27, 2015)

As mentioned on a previous blog post, our three year old foster son is considered “Level 4” trauma in the foster care system. While I don’t know what that specifically means, I reasonably believe it is the highest level of trauma permitted before requiring him to be placed in a therapeutic foster home.

Even though he was three when he came to us, we don’t know everything about his background and experiences. What we do know, however, is heartbreaking. By the age of three, he had lived 8 different places both prior to and within the foster care system (we are his 9th residence, and at 5 months, we are also the longest place he has ever lived). Some of the time he was bouncing from place to place around NC with his biological mother (hereafter ‘mom’): homeless, in a hotel, with relatives (including a confessed Satan worshipper), etc. Permanence has not been his experience.

When he was pulled in 2014, he could accurately describe and demonstrate how to self-administer a heroin injection – all while only two years old. He was originally placed with his maternal grandmother, but DSS learned that the grandmother was a habitual marijuana user and had a verified prostitute friend who would come and “crash” on a regular basis. This resulted in his being pulled again and placed with a transitional home while being prepared for what ultimately became our family.

Furthermore, his biological father physically abused his mom, including kidnapping (or possibly unlawful restraint), assault with a deadly weapon, and assault with the intent to kill resulting in a prolonged hospital stay for her. It is the belief of the social worker and guardian ad litem that our foster son witnessed some or all of this assault.

Again, these are the experiences that we know about. Only God knows what else our son has witnessed; as of now, he is repressing most of these experiences.[1] He spoke openly of his mom when he first came and would speak up if he heard her name (regardless if it was his mom or another woman with the same name), but gradually he began to replace those thoughts with newer and more positive (we hope) experiences. However, that is a post for another time.

Returning to childhood trauma: first I, wish to define what childhood trauma is; then, look at some of the factors that can cause it; next, I want to look at some symptoms of childhood trauma, and; lastly, I will list the symptoms in our situation.

Trauma – according to Webster’s, trauma is defined as “a disordered psychic or behavioral state resulting from severe mental or emotional stress or physical injury; an emotional upset.” Emotional or psychological trauma, as defined above, is usually the result of a traumatic event.

Traumatic events – According to a pamphlet produced by the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Trauma Psychiatry Program, a traumatic event is an event which causes “terror, intense fear, horror, helplessness, and physical stress reactions…The impact of these events does not simply go away when they are over. Instead, traumatic events are profound experiences that change the way children, adolescents and adults see themselves and their world.”[2] The pamphlet goes on to say that “…many individuals who have had traumatic experiences suffer from ongoing reactions to them. These reactions are called Posttraumatic Stress Reactions[3] (emphasis theirs).

It should be noted that the traumatic experience can either be natural (a natural disaster) or the result of human involvement, from a grand scale (terrorist attack) to localized (abuse).

Symptoms of childhood trauma – What are some symptoms of childhood trauma? There are many, and a quick Google search will result in a deluge of information and helpful websites. According to the American Psychological Association, some of the symptoms can include:

The development of new fears; separation anxiety (particularly in young children); sleep disturbance, nightmares; sadness; loss of interest in normal activities; reduced concentration; decline in schoolwork; anger; somatic complaints, and; irritability.[4]

This list is similar to the symptoms found in adults who experience Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

The UCLA pamphlet broke the reactions down into three main categories: Intrusive reactions (i.e., flashbacks); Avoidance and withdrawal reactions, to protect against intrusive reactions (i.e., restriction or numbing of emotions, social withdrawal, etc.), and; Physical arousal reactions, physical changes that make the body react as if danger were near (i.e., anger, irritability, jumpiness, etc.).[5]

Our trauma situation – We have seen many displays of trauma symptoms, especially when he is under stress. The most prominent symptoms we observe are: setting his face in a “mask” that is devoid of emotional expression; running away from the room or hide in a corner; occasionally bowing up or balling his fists in anger (though he has never lashed out physically); throwing the mother of all temper tantrums (more force and emotional involvement); trying to make himself throw up; crying (though without tears) and screaming louder and louder, beyond a typical temper tantrum, or; contorting his face into an extreme frown and pout. Additionally he makes himself limp and floppy.

The question now becomes: how do we help our foster son process his trauma? Should we place him in therapy? Is it better to let him process the trauma ‘naturally,’ knowing that may or may not compound the issue? Should we ignore it and rather focus on the symptoms, treating them as behavior that needs correcting (a tactic many Biblical ‘counselors’ would recommend – more on why I disagree with this method in a future post)? It should be noted that all of these options assume some level of permanence and that is not guaranteed in a foster care situation; however, our parenting philosophy is that we have the long-term view in mind.

Study evidence suggests that childhood trauma, remembered or not, can influence thinking and behaviors in adults.[6] Therefore, not addressing our son’s trauma is not an option. However, that does not mean that we should immediately put him in therapy, either.

Rather, I believe the best course of action is holistic in nature. By that I mean, first and foremost, we have and will continue to provide him a loving and stable (as stable as possible) home environment. We will also address his behavior issues, working with him to understand why those behaviors are not acceptable. At the same time, we will continue to talk with him and ask questions, asking about why he did certain behaviors and when he gets older, exploring his physical and emotional reasoning behind his actions. Lastly, we will work with the social workers to determine if, when and what therapies are best for him.

We are committed to his healing. That is where it starts.


[1] Defined as “dissociation”. According to the American Psychological Association, dissociation “means that a memory is not actually lost, but is for some time unavailable for retrieval. That is, it’s in memory storage, but cannot for some period of time actually be recalled.” Questions and Answers About Memories of Childhood Abuse. (Retrieved 10/27/15).

[2] Trauma Information Pamphlet for Parents, © 2001, Trauma Psychiatry Program, University of California, Los Angeles. (Retrieved 10/26/15).

[3] Ibid

[4] American Psychological Association, Children and Trauma: an update for mental health professionals. © 2008. (Retrieved 10/26/15).

[5] UCLA

[6] “Experiencing any form of childhood trauma and abuse can impact on an adult’s quality of life in fundamental ways. It can make basic day-to-day activities, such as eating, sleeping, working and study difficult. Trauma and abuse in childhood can also affect your mental health, physical health, and your relationships with the people around you.” Adults Surviving Child Abuse. (Retrieved 10/27/15).


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