What the Church needs to know about trauma

Helping us to understand that all children in care or with a care background have experienced trauma, and how we can respond to support them.

All children in care or with a care background have experienced trauma.

If our churches are to be welcoming and safe for vulnerable children, and if we are to truly support our adopting and fostering friends, then it is vital to seek to understand something of how trauma may affect these children and their families.

If you’re anything like me, you may find the concept of ‘trauma’ rather difficult to understand. On the one hand, there are some life events – bereavement, for example – that most of us would label as ‘traumatic’. But on the other, there are infinite possibilities that tread a fragile boundary between ‘traumatic’ and just plain ‘tough’.

It is often our response to these life events, rather than the events themselves, which ultimately may define them as ‘trauma’.

And in addition to the event itself, a number of different factors shape our response : the support we get from others, the other things happening in our lives at the moment, our own mental robustness, and so on.

For example, if you had a child who was struggling at school, but had the support of your family and your child’s teacher, and if life was otherwise going well, then hopefully you would manage to weather this storm fairly well. But imagine that your child had started kicking off in school and you were also experiencing stress at work and problems in your marriage. Suddenly, the same problem at school becomes more of a traumatic event, because you’re less resourced to deal with it effectively.

It’s a crude analogy, but hopefully illustrates the point that how we respond to an event is a large part of the definition of ‘trauma’.

Traumatised children are particularly vulnerable. Their growing minds may not yet have the emotional resources required to process a traumatic experience. Depending on age, they may not be able to articulate what has happened. And if a child's main caregiver was someone who could not meet their emotional needs, then it might be challenging for this child to learn to trust adults at all - including divulging details of the experiences they've had.

Of course we can’t predict how the traumas of their early life might play out in the future. Perhaps it is helpful, then, to arm ourselves with a bit of understanding so that, whatever outcomes present themselves, we are equipped to be as supportive as possible

Firstly, all adopted or fostered children have experienced trauma.

We may believe that only those children who have suffered abuse or neglect are victims of trauma, but all children in care have been separated from their birth mother in whose womb they grew, feeling her heartbeat and hearing her voice. This separation is arguably one of the greatest traumas a human being can ever experience, and – regardless of whether a child experiences further trauma – may have a large impact on their future.

It is tempting to think that because a child has settled well into their adoptive family, they will suffer no impact from their early trauma. I can’t stress enough the inaccuracy of this view.

In the online adoption forums of which I’m a part, I regularly read about the difficult lives of older children/teenagers who were placed into foster care from birth. They may have not known abuse or neglect – but the trauma of parental separation has caught up with them, and they’re struggling to cope with the consequences.

Second, seemingly insignificant actions, words or senses can trigger traumatic memories.

Adopted or fostered children may harbour feelings of insecurity (Am I going to stay in this home forever?), guilt (I made my parents unable to cope with me), inadequacy (I’m not good enough to love), anger (Why has life been so cruel to me?) and anxiety (I mustn’t put a foot wrong in case this family throws me out).

The smallest of things can trigger these emotions. And the problem is, children don’t arrive with a list of triggers to avoid. We learn them as we go along.

One example is of a foster child who, inexplicably, has a meltdown in the supermarket checkout queue. Why? Because the person in front has poor personal hygiene, and this child’s abuser smelt equally bad. The abuse might not even have been remembered, but it has left its imprint on the child’s senses. Or another child might become unsettled, distressed or even angry at mealtimes, without knowing why. It transpires that when this child was a baby and attending contact sessions, his foster mum would make sure he was ready for a feed when birth mum arrived, so that they would have a bonding activity to do straight away. Perhaps the child sensed that someone different was feeding him, and this is still the cause of his upset when a mealtime is anticipated.

So, whilst there are some things you should never ask and other things which constitute good practice surrounding looked-after children, the reality is that you may still, without meaning to, hit a trigger for a child.

When this happens, don’t beat yourself up about it. Use it as an opportunity to learn more about how that child functions. If you are not his/her parent or carer, share what happened with the parent or carer – it may be something they’d not noticed before, and therefore you’ll be helping them too!

Speaking of which, parents also bear their child’s trauma.

It is very common for adoptive and fostering parents to feel all the emotions I mentioned above in relation to children. They may feel insecure in their parenting ability, guilty that they can’t change their child’s experiences, inadequate to change their child’s future, angry on behalf of their child, and anxious about whether they’ll cope with future life changes.

In short, these parents are often exhausted – physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. Cut them some slack. Pray for them. Ask them how they’re doing. Babysit so they can get out for a coffee or an evening meal. Invite them out socially. Realise that parenting traumatised children may look different to ‘normal’ parenting.

Fourthly: compliance does not indicate a lack of trauma.

Many looked after or adopted children are experts at playing the right game at the right time. They learn how to behave in different situations, how to cover up what they’re feeling and how to make people like them.

Sadly, this does not come from a place of healthy respect for boundaries, but from a very basic human survival mode which adapts to different environments in order to simply stay alive.

Whilst this can be good (it is, after all, God-given), enabling human beings to survive and flourish since they were created, most of us have never known what it is like not to survive. We’ve always been given food and sleep when needed, we’ve had our emotional needs met, we’ve had shelter and clean clothes and access to different activities to help us grow and develop. A child who hasn’t had these things – albeit for a small part of his/her life – may struggle to relax into the idea of being provided for.

If a looked after child in your Sunday School class is always well-behaved, don’t assume this means that they’re always feeling great. Build a relationship with them, be prepared to be open about your own struggles and vulnerabilities, help them to relax and be honest with you as you they learn to trust you.

Finally, let’s not forget that God can do all things.

Through His Holy Spirit, God is able to heal and restore – mentally and emotionally, as well as physically. Of course we are only too aware that some restoration may take a lifetime – but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t persist:

“And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.” (Ephesians 6:18)

When all seems bleak, pray. Pray for all the looked after children you know. Pray for them through their tantrums and meltdowns, their school lives and job prospects, their friendship groups and romantic relationships.

So many of you do this already. On behalf of adoptive and fostering parents, thank you so much for investing in our children. Thank you for not judging. Thank you for not giving up. And above all, thank you for glorifying God as you welcome these hurt, traumatised children into His family.

One day we will all be healed, but until then we continue to walk with those who are suffering, knowing that as we do so, we catch a glimpse of how Christ suffered for us.

Written for Home for Good by Lucy Rycroft of The Hope-Filled Family

Written for Home for Good by Lucy Rycroft of thehopefilledfamily.com



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