Supporting a Foster Child with a History of Trauma

Sadly, many children within the foster system have experienced the trauma of some sought, be it physical, sexual or emotional abuse, witnessing other violent events or overall neglect. Understandably, such events have a significant impact on the child and in an attempt to try and overcome or deal with these events the child may begin to interact with others or behave in a different way. Sometimes these new behaviors can be quite challenging and may even be harmful to the child or others. So in order to be able to care for these children, we require a sound understanding of trauma and the unique needs of children who have experienced such horrible events.

Since many children are removed by child protective services because of neglect, abuse, or unsafe living situations, foster care children may have complex reactions of relief combined with guilt and feelings of abandonment. — Glen R. Elliott, MD, PhD


So what is trauma?

Trauma is an event that threatens the life or safety of either the child or someone who they love and are close to. It can take many forms and as described above, ones of these forms can be through abuse or neglect. However, trauma can also occur through witnessing others being violent towards their caregivers, accidents and natural disasters.


How does trauma impact us?

Our brains learn by what we experience in the world around us. So if we find something scary or life-threatening, our brain is sure to remember this so we can make sure we do not get into a similar situation again. When the brain remembers the traumatic event, it does not just remember what happens, because it knows how important it is not to forget this threat, it remembers sounds, smells, feelings, people, places and even emotions. If we later experience any of these things again (such as a campfire and we had been stuck in a bushfire before) it can trigger us to remember this event and experience all the fear we experienced the first time all over again.

How much a traumatic event impacts us will depend on both ourselves and the nature of the trauma. If we have an anxious or fearful disposition, we are very young and don’t have many coping strategies the trauma can be more harmful. It can also be more harmful if it happens multiple times (opposed to a once off event), if there are a number of other stressful factors present (such as drugs and alcohol abuse in the family, physical abuse and low SES status), or if we don’t have much social support.

What does it look like for kids?

For anyone re-experiencing a traumatic event can be extremely distressing. As adults, we have generally developed some coping strategies to manage our responses to such distress, but as children sometimes their reactions can look like defiance or over-sensitivity. This is because when their trauma is triggered, they are not only remembering the event, they are actually reliving it. This reliving sends the body into a flight, fight or freeze response which may involve the child shutting down and ignoring you, trying to run away or escape or acting out and hitting, kicking or throwing things. To people who are unaware of the child’s background, this will likely look like a temper tantrum and they may try to discipline the child. This will NOT help though…


The first step is to figure out what the child already knows and feels about the situation. This can be done by creating an opportunity for the child to talk openly about the situation with you. —  

What should you do?


  1. Take it personally, they are not reacting to you but reacting to the trauma that has been triggered.
  2. Use physical punishment as this can frighten the child further.
  3. Lose your cool; no one is going to get anywhere with two emotional people involved.
  4. Invade their space; if they push you away, keep some distance but stay within sight and provide support when appropriate.
  5. Lose your patience; their very essence of trust in people has been broken. It will take some time to get this back.
  6. Blame the child. It is not their fault they have had this experience and they often cannot control how they behave when triggered. Blaming them will only put shame and sadness on top of what they are already experiencing.


  1. Try and get to know your child so that you can identify when they are being defiant opposed to when their trauma has been triggered.
  2. Maintain consistency so that the child learns that you can be trusted and develops a more secure attachment (head over to our page on connecting with your foster child [how to connect with your foster child] for more information on attachment).
  3. Learn your child’s triggers and try to reduce these in the short-run and learn some ways they can be calmed when re-experiencing the trauma.
  4. Allow them to have some control over their environment by giving them choices.
  5. When calm, teach your child how to identify their feelings and tell you and others these feelings.
  6. Teach them some ways to calm themselves and to express their feelings in a helpful manner (such as throwing or punching pillows, ripping up phone books, etc). If they do these things make sure you give them lots and lots of praise.
  7. Seek support through a professional counselor. A counselor can help you and your child to explore their trauma response in a safe environment and develop adaptive coping strategies you can work on together at home. Make sure this is a collaborative effort (unless the child asks to go to counseling alone). As often children may feel “abandoned” or “palmed off” if they are sent to a counselor alone.

To say it again: there is no stronger predictor of happiness than how robust and positive a child’s “village” is, so do what you can to foster relationships with neighbors, teachers, and members of your community. — Christine L. Carter Ph.D.

For more information on supporting a child with a traumatic background, please see the links below.


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