Understanding trauma

Trauma can affect children’s brains, bodies, behavior, and ways of thinking. It can also be treated

All children in foster care have been exposed to some form of trauma. The very act of being put in foster care is traumatic for children, because it means the loss of their birth family and often friends, schoolmates, teachers, and everything that is familiar.

But many children in foster care have experienced more than one form of trauma or repeated trauma, the lasting effects of which should be acknowledged and understood by families considering foster care and adoption.A

What is trauma?

Child traumatic stress occurs when children and adolescents are exposed to events or situations that overwhelm their ability to cope and interfere with daily life and their ability to function and interact with others.

The type of trauma experienced by children in foster care can vary widely from neglect to domestic violence to physical and sexual abuse.

How does trauma affect children?

Trauma can affect children’s brains, bodies, behavior, and ways of thinking. Ongoing trauma often disrupts children’s sense of security, safety, and sense of themselves and alters the way they see and respond to people and situations in their lives. Approximately one in four children in foster care will show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Children who have experienced trauma—especially ongoing trauma—may have developed unhealthy habits and behaviors, including increased aggression and distrusting or disobeying adults. These behaviors may have helped protect the children from neglect or abuse in the past and may be strongly rooted. It will take time, patience, and often therapeutic support to address and overcome them.  

As the Child Welfare Information Gateway fact sheet, Parenting a Child Who Has Experienced Trauma (495 KB PDF), states: “Parenting a child who has experienced trauma may require a shift from seeing a ‘bad kid’ to a kid who has had bad things happen to him.”  

Effect of trauma on brain development

A recent and growing body of research into children’s brain development is shedding new light on the ways that maltreatment changes the structure and chemical activity of the brain and the resulting emotional and behavioral functioning of the child. Research is shifting the way that professionals view and treat children who have experienced trauma by providing biological explanations for what had traditionally been described in psychological, emotional, and behavioral terms.

In an article on our blog, “Understanding Children’s Behavior and Helping Them Heal,” a therapist describes some of the neurological causes of children’s behavior, sensory “triggers,” and how you can calm a child.

How can a parent help a child recover and heal?

Experienced foster and adoptive parents have shared the following tips with us about supporting a child who has experienced trauma:

  • Be patient and consistent and do not take children’s behavior personally.
  • Do not to expect to learn upfront about all the trauma the child or youth has experienced. Some of the trauma’s effects may not become apparent for months or even years.
  • Be prepared to have patience and talk things through—a lot!
  • Be open to solving problems in new ways.
  • Never be afraid to reach out for help and advice from others. Parent support groups can be a great source of information. Search for support groups by state on our website.
  • Work hard to understand the trauma and how the trauma affects your child. Not all cases are text book, but doing your research can definitely help.
  • Utilize and seek out community resources. Training may be available through hospitals, school programs, therapeutic, and private agencies.
  • Ask your child's pediatrician for additional services and resources.
  • Take the long view. The trauma didn’t happen overnight and the healing won’t either.
  • Finally, as one mother told us: “The thing I’ve learned most from parenting traumatized children is that they are amazing, resilient, and strong.”

Sources and additional information

Much of the information contained on this page was pulled from the following resources, which offer further details on understanding and treating trauma.

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