While foster care is a system designed to protect and provide safety for children, there are many layers to the experiences that a child has to process and heal from. Lindy Green Johnson, LCSW, defines it this way…”Trauma in general is the reality of what’s happening within our body. In a moment, in an experience.” So in order to fully understand trauma, we must explore various aspects of human connection, stress, and repair.
The basics of understanding trauma
One of the fundamental aspects of childhood trauma is the attachment bond between parent and child. This bond, which is typically formed in early childhood, sets the foundation for future relationships and the child’s emotional well-being. When this bond is secure, children develop a sense of trust and safety with themselves and others. However, when it is insecure, it can lead to a range of adverse effects.
Children who have experienced trauma, especially those placed in foster care settings, frequently struggle with forming secure attachment bonds in their life. Trauma disrupts their ability to trust and develop healthy relationships, hindering emotional and social development. This results in emotional dysregulation often. Foster care placement itself can compound these challenges due to common changes in foster care placement, revolving child welfare workers, and sometimes schools. This all leads to further instability and disruption in attachment formation.
Sibling bonds also play a crucial role in the trauma experienced by children. Separation due to foster care or adoption can be a traumatic event for these children, as they are being uprooted from the familiar and placed in unfamiliar environments. This separation from siblings can further exacerbate the trauma experienced by these children.
Toxic stress is another contributor to trauma. When individuals experience prolonged periods of stress without adequate support or protection, it leads to toxic stress, which can have long-lasting effects on their physical and mental health. Examples of this could be lack of food, shelter, financial resources or even just experiencing emotional neglect as a child.
The outward expression of trauma for each child will look different but when in a stress response, the child will exhibit on of these actions: fight, flight, freeze, or fawn. This is their brain/body’s way of protecting them because they feel there is a threat to their felt sense of safety, and so their rational mind goes offline.
Sarah McCrory LPC, says it this way: “Felt Safety is not whether a child is safe, but whether that child feels safe. When a child has to leave everything that is familiar and everything that they know is ripped away, then that damages their sense of felt safety.”
Creating a sense of safety is paramount in addressing trauma and promoting healthy attachment. By creating safe environments, both physically and emotionally, (externally and internally) kids can begin to heal from past traumas. Additionally, the presence of safe people in the community, such as therapists or support groups, can further facilitate the healing process.
Trauma Aware Safety Toolbox:
In order to support children who have experienced trauma, it is crucial to provide them with a toolbox of safety. This toolbox consists of various strategies and resources aimed at restoring a sense of security and facilitating healing. These may include:
1. Trauma-Aware care: Adult caregivers adopting “trauma-aware” approaches can create safe environments where children feel understood, supported, and validated. TBRI (link below) is one method that has helped a multitude of families to create connection, safety, and empower kids in their life despite experiencing trauma.
2. Emotional regulation techniques: Teaching children coping skills such as deep breathing, relaxation exercises, and mindfulness can help them manage overwhelming emotions and regain a sense of control. Caring for their sensory needs (sight, sounds, overstimulating environments), finding songs, sensory tools, writing, or art practices that help them express big emotions can help them move through overwhelming emotions. Sometimes just a good hug helps a child to regulate.
Can you heal from trauma?
3. Therapeutic interventions: Engaging in trauma-focused therapies such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) can help children process and resolve traumatic experiences.
4. Connected play and felt safety: Play therapy is incredibly helpful in the intervention of trauma. Dr. Karyn Purvis, author of The Connected Child, says, “Play disarms fear, builds connectedness, and teaches social skills and competencies for life.” According to research by Dr. Purvis, “scientists have discovered that it takes approximately 400 repetitions to create a new synapse in the brain, unless it is done in play, in which case it only takes 10 to 20 repetitions.”
Teaching kids they can safely attach and heal through play is crucial.
5. Stable and nurturing community: Consistent, safe, and caring adult relationships serve as a vital foundation for healing. Identifying supportive individuals or mentors who can provide stability and positive role models can greatly benefit traumatized children. Lindy Green Johnson expressed that a huge goal of foster parents need to be creating stability and nurturing at home. She goes on to describe how valuable of a role the community also plays: How cool when you think about that child stepping out of the home into volleyball practice or piano lessons or soccer practice or Sunday school or youth group or whatever it might be debate team to also know they’re safe.”
Trauma and the healing power of community
Despite the challenges faced by children from trauma, there is immense hope for their healing. With proper support, therapy, and interventions, these children can begin to overcome their traumatic experiences and build healthy relationships. Identifying trauma and understanding its self-protective nature is the first step in providing the necessary support for these kids.
To support children from trauma, it is important to be trauma aware. Lindy Green Johnson says, “When I’m talking about a trauma aware lens, a lot of times it just means we’re really attending to the heart of the child. We’re looking at needs behind behaviors.” This involves providing safe people and places. She adds, “Healing from trauma is absolutely possible, but there is no formula or predictable timeline, but daily repetitions of connections, trust, and repair are essential.” So, building your resilience as a parent helps the child learn to build resilience when facing difficult situations inside of them or outside of them.
As we have shared, trauma is a complex concept that involves various aspects of connection, stress, and an ability to repair or regulate emotions. Understanding the attachment bond, the effects of separation on siblings, toxic stress, the stress experienced by foster and adoptive parents, creating safety in environments, and the presence of safe people in the community are all ingredients in helping kids with trauma. By acknowledging and exploring resources, then building a safety toolbox, we can provide the necessary support and hope for kids to heal from all types of traumas.
Additional outside support resources for the parents of kids dealing with trauma:
Support resources outside of America’s Kids Belong for the parents of kids dealing with trauma:
Lindy Green Johnson
Books and Training Program:
TCU Trust Based-Relational InterventionⓇ Training– great for training staff and volunteers to bring to their communities at large
The Connected Child: Bring Hope and Healing to Your Adoptive Family
The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind
The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma
Foster the Family: Encouragement, Hope, and Practical Help for the Christian Foster Parent
The Connected Parent: Real-Life Strategies for Building Trust and Attachment
Parenting from the Inside Out: How a Deeper Self-Understanding Can Help You Raise Children Who Thrive