"Sometimes parents feel like they’ve done it wrong—but they need to give themselves so much grace. They are responding to a history they did not create."
Because caring for the orphan is a deep concern on God’s heart, Jenn Ranter wanted to provide support for these families, so that they felt loved and cared for. She founded Replanted Ministry because she wanted to create a community where both the parents/foster parents could feel safe and vulnerable and be able to share their honest feelings and emotions without judgment. Families who are in the trenches of dealing with trauma can offer this support to other families—parents and children alike.
What is Trauma?
Children in foster care undergo significant levels of trauma—simply being removed from their home and family is traumatic, which can be compounded by abuse or neglect that has occurred prior to their removal. Abuse conveys to a child “I don’t like you,” while neglect says “you do not exist.” Even children whose mother experienced high anxiety or abuse during pregnancy can be affected by this trauma.
Trauma manifests in different ways. The amygdala is the part of the brain that is responsible for survival sand prompts the flight, fight or freeze response. “Flight” would be shown through a child who runs or hides when in stressful situations. “Fight” shows up as combative or destructive actions. “Freeze” means the child simply shuts down. To help a child in the healing process from trauma, it is important to make them not only understand that they are safe, but to feel that they are safe. The amygdala is the place in the brain where the current experience causes activation of these different responses because the child feels the need to be safe.
Children in foster care have almost always experienced trauma. Knowing their history is important to understanding the reasons behind a child’s responses. Birth to three months is when the most rapid brain growth happens in a child—so if the trauma occurs when the child is very young, they are very likely to be behind developmentally—if they are not nurtured, trust is not developed.
Understanding a Child’s Behavior
When a child’s behavior feels intentional or willful, it’s because their trauma has been activated through current experiences and the amygdala is turned on full blast—turning off other parts of the brain—those parts that are more rational and can regulate behavior. When a child’s trauma is activated, the amygdala is turned on full blast, like a gas pedal to the floor, and it turns off the other parts of the brain.
The late Dr. Karyn Purvis described the brain as being a house. The amygdala is the basement, the foundation necessary for survival, and all the other parts of the brain—language, moral compass, temper—are upstairs. When a child’s trauma is triggered, the amygdala takes over and overwhelms the calmer, reasonable efforts of the other parts of the brain—basically turning out the lights of this portion of the brain. To help a child, we need to disarm the amygdala and its fear response. The child needs above all to feel safe because when the child feels safe, they can access the parts of the brain that help them function in a more rational way.
Getting to the core and understanding the trauma is vital to helping the child heal. The journey of helping a kid deal with trauma is like spring cleaning—it gets messier before it gets better.
Another important factor to remember is that a child’s emotional maturity is adversely affected by trauma. “You can generally say that a child’s chronological age can be halved as far as their emotional age if they’ve experienced trauma,” says Jenn. This means an 8 year old who has experienced trauma will have the emotional maturity closer to that of a 4 year old. Looking at the child through this trauma lens will help you make more sense of what they are experiencing and how they are reacting.
Children who have experienced trauma are not bad kids—they are responding to the experiences they’ve had—and they are still precious.
Understanding the Abuse Cycle
Some children may want or even ask their caregiver to hurt them. This is part of the abuse cycle. The brain learns to anticipate abuse. Once a child is abused, the brain starts anticipating being abused again—and anxiety builds over time. Once the abuse happens again, the anxiety goes down because, strangely enough, the abuse actually relieves the anxiety caused by the anticipation. The child wants relief from the anxiety, so they ask to be hurt, even when they are in a safe situation.
If parents are not aware of this cycle, they don’t understand the child’s actions or requests. Even though the child is in a safe situation and knows it, “there is a difference between knowing you are safe and feeling you are safe,” explains Jenn.
For example, a soldier is trained to drop to the ground at the sound of gunfire. Then during a deployment, the actual scenario may occur—the sound of gunfire, soldiers dropping to the ground for safety. At some point, someone gets hit. The brain is traumatized for not only the injured soldier, but those who were there but not hurt. This explains why, when back home, in safe surroundings, a soldier who hears a car backfire often automatically drops to the ground. The amygdala has been activated and it responds with what it knows to do: drop to the ground. It takes time to feel safe.
Although it may feel hopeless at times, there is hope for children who have experienced trauma. “The brain is plastic—it can heal,” says Jenn. The research has shown this to be true, so there is indeed reason for a great amount of hope. But it does take time.
Attachment and Sensory Processing Problems
Attachment is a big piece of childhood trauma. Up to 80% of children who are adopted or are/have been in foster care have disorganized attachment, often shown by screaming and an arched body. But a child with disorganized attachment can get to secure attachment. Although it is different for each child, it typically takes 3-4 months to develop attachment to a caregiver.
For children with insecure attachment, their reaction to anxiety might include running, biting, hitting or kicking. Unfortunately, punitive consequences like time outs don’t work because the time out will just continue to activate the amygdala—making the child feel abandoned and forcing the fight, flight or freeze response.
What the child in this situation needs is that their caregiver (foster parent) is still there and they still care. Connection is huge—and is a healing element. So eye contact and healthy touch (hands, shoulders, elbows) are two ways to convey that the child is safe and cared for.
About 80% of children who have been adopted or are in foster care also have sensory processing problems. So a child who reacts with kicking or hitting can be taught to do activities that cause deep muscle stimulation, such as pushing against a wall.
It’s important to get to the core of the issue, or it will be difficult to get to a place of healing and sustainable growth. Set a lower bar of expectations—teach healthy coping skills such as deep muscle stimulation, role play, using seven words or less to explain feelings, playful engagement, give two positively phrased choices (the parent still has authority, but choices give the child a voice and helps them organize their brain), teach them to ask for a compromise. The positive language you use, listening to them to show you care—all builds trust. The more experiences they have in which the parent doesn’t abandon them, builds their trust. Playfulness disarms fear in the brain—use light, playful tones and words instead of yelling in a stern voice. The regulatory part of the brain is turned off when the trauma is triggered, so strategies such as these help keep the amygdala’s fears from kicking in and taking over.
These are strategies to try when interacting with a child whose trauma has been triggered and needs to refocus on positive actions:
- Playfulness (correct in a playful manner)
- Come up with slogans, rehearse them in non-stressful situations (e.g., stickin’ together, no runnin’, no hurts, show respect)
- Use a stuffed animal or puppet to discuss good vs bad actions and consequences
- Deep facial muscle stimulation (especially for kids with oral fixation)—chew double bubblegum, twisty straws so they have to suck harder to get a drink
- Push against the wall (and other deep muscle strategies)
- Bear hugs
- Deep breath – blow bubbles
- Hold hands, give hugs
- Maintain eye contact
Replanted is a support ministry for adults and kids so they can share the frustrations and joys with others who understand where they are coming from. Adults can connect with others in similar situations (Me too Moments) and kids get together with others without feeling the stigma of being in foster care or adopted. Family support networks to help foster and adoptive parents feel capable, empowered and able to get through their circumstances. Faith-based groups share their hearts and their deep sorrows and pray for each other.
Hopefully, this episode has helped you right where you are on your foster care journey. That’s the goal. If you enjoyed it, will you tell others?
The best way to do that is to rate the podcast on Apple Podcasts and leave us a brief review! Your ratings and reviews help us get this podcast in front of new listeners. Your feedback also lets us know how we can better serve you. Thank you so much!
Meet Our Guest
Jenn Ranter received her master’s degree in clinical psychology from Wheaton College. She is a trauma specialized therapist for children and adolescent in foster care and is a Trust-Based Relational Intervention (TBRI) educator. She is the founder and director of Replanted, a ministry serving families in adoption, foster care, and Safe Families programs throughout the US. She has been published in the Journal of Adolescence and has been a speaker on topics including: foster care, trauma and attachment, and forgiveness as a coping response in children.
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