Sep 13, 2016
Q&A with Bindi Avrett, M.S., BCS Regional Manager in Bogart, Georgia
What do we mean by “trauma,” and how prevalent is it in children in foster care?
Every child in foster care has suffered some degree of trauma. Even if they didn’t experience abuse, being removed from your family is by itself a traumatic experience. Put yourself in a child’s shoes—it is frightening to be separated from your family and have no contact with your mom or siblings, maybe for weeks. That has an impact on the child. Research has shown that living at a high-stress level for an extended period of time can affect a child’s brain development, which impacts their behaviors.
What kinds of behaviors?
Tantrums (beyond what is age-appropriate) or emotional outbursts is what we commonly see. It’s not that the child is choosing to respond this way; more likely the child is operating at a high-stress level where any small trigger can ignite an outburst. Adults know what it feels like to snap at someone or overreact when we’re stressed or over-tired, but we generally don’t live in that mode. We also have learned different, healthier ways to manage our stress. Most of the children we see haven’t had a safe, stable environment to learn other ways to process their feelings or cope with their chronic stress.
Can you give some examples?
Two siblings under 10 years old had been in foster care for a few years. Their mom was recovering from a drug addiction and progressing well on her plan toward reunification. During a weekend visit with her kids, she overdosed in their presence and was rushed to the hospital. A few weeks later, she surrendered her rights to the children. The children were old enough to understand what was happening, which compounded the trauma they’d already experienced. Their difficult behaviors increased, and their emotional outbursts became more intense. During this time, the children were supposed to be receiving therapy from an outside provider; however, it came to light after a few weeks that the provider was not keeping appointments with the children. Neither of them had been receiving therapy during this very difficult time in their lives.
In another family, a 17-year-old girl who had cerebral palsy had experienced significant abuse in her birth home. Talking about it made her very upset; sometimes she would cry for days. We recommended ADOPTS, a therapy program for children who have experienced trauma. Her foster mother was hesitant to put her in a counseling situation where she would have to talk about what had happened to her—the foster mother didn’t want to further upset her, but the teen needed to be able to process the trauma she’d experienced in a healthy environment where she would learn new coping skills. ADOPTS made a big difference for her, and she is now in a much healthier place.
Do foster parents learn about trauma-based behaviors during their training?
They do, although there’s so much information to learn when they are first becoming licensed. People need reminders, and in my office in Bogart, Georgia, we are working to provide additional monthly training on the effects of trauma and the biology behind it—how to see through the hurt and pain behind difficult behaviors and see the child.
What resources do you recommend to foster parents?
ADOPTS is a great resource for parents doing foster-to-adopt when a child is placed in your home for purpose of adoption.
I also recommend The Connected Child by Dr. Karyn Purvis. Although the book has a lot to say about adoption, it has relevant information for foster families. It will help parents understand difficult behaviors rooted in trauma and take a breath before they react. Their calm response will help de-escalate an outburst.
Parenting is hard, but parenting kids with trauma is a little harder. Don’t try to do it alone, and don’t think you are failing if you need help. Please contact your local Bethany office to ask for additional resources and support.