To a very large extent, a person’s childhood experiences determine the kind of person they will one day become. Unfortunately, it’s not always possible to shield even the youngest from the imperfections of this world and those who live in it, meaning that the best foster parents can do is often to provide an environment in which traumatized children can heal and learn to cope with their memories.
The Nature of Trauma
It’s important for caregivers to understand that trauma is in the mind. This shouldn’t be taken to imply that its effects aren’t real, or that it can be cured just by thinking happy thoughts.
What’s meant, rather, is that being traumatized is an internal condition and its effects are heavily dependent on the way external events are perceived. What is highly traumatic to one child may be brushed off by another, while adults shouldn’t imagine that they can determine what should or shouldn’t trigger a fear response in a much younger person. Being abandoned by a mother, for instance, effectively means that a child’s entire world has fallen apart, even when that mother was neglectful or abusive.
Perhaps the most damaging consequence of trauma inflicted on a child is that they may lose faith in all adult figures. This is certainly natural, even rational given what they know about the world, but constitutes a mental stumbling block which may take years to overcome. Adults often equate a lack of trust in them as disrespect for their authority, which is not only harmful but highly unfair.
While displaying affection is one way of showing that you can be relied upon, consistency is much more important. A stable environment and defined routines are helpful in this regard, as is allowing the child to make some choices of their own and recognizing the validity of these.
Dealing With Behavioral Problems
Most foster parents, quite naturally, consider things like lying or angry outbursts as problems to be rectified. With traumatized children, though, this is a completely facile attitude to take.
The defining feature of trauma is anxiety, whether acute or constant. The triggers for this may be difficult to identify, and it may manifest as over-friendliness, withdrawal, or anything else on the fight/flight spectrum of responses. Blaming the child for these kinds of behaviors is in no way helpful.
Instead, be patient and avoid any sign of aggression on your part, including raising your voice, looking at the child for too long at a stretch or invading their personal space. Overcoming trauma often takes years and is nearly impossible without some kind of support. In many cases, enlisting the help of a child psychologist will not only be helpful but essential. Nobody has ever said that foster parenting is easy – hopefully, the rewards will be great enough to compensate for the sacrifices.