Tips for Parenting a Child or Foster Child with PTSD

Teenage grl sitting on a staircase outside feeling depressed
Teenage grl sitting on a staircase outside feeling depressed(WKYT)
Published: Jul. 31, 2019 at 5:21 PM EDT
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Parenting is a challenge under the best circumstances, so when your child is experiencing trauma or posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), it can be especially difficult to understand how to help them heal, grow and thrive at home. But with a little understanding and a lot of love, you can make an impact.

Defining Trauma and PTSD

Trauma is an intense negative event that emotionally affects a person – by definition, it’s something that causes or threatens harm. Foster children may have experienced trauma from abuse, neglect, poverty, bullying or other situations before entering the child welfare system. Entering the system itself can also be traumatic due to separation from loved ones.

PTSD (Posttraumatic Stress Disorder) is caused by severe trauma and presents specific symptoms:

  • Re-experiencing/reimaging the traumatic event (through flashbacks or nightmares)
  • Avoidance (distressing memories and reminders about the event)
  • Persistent negative feelings and mood
  • Altered arousal (reckless behavior, persistent sleep disturbance)
Recognizing Behaviors

When children and young adults have experienced trauma or suffer from PTSD, their bodies, brains, emotions and behavior are all affected. Children react to trauma in ways that may be hard for parents to distinguish from simple “bad” behavior. It also varies by the child’s age – a toddler may be clingy where a middle schooler may be withdrawn, and a teenager may be aggressive. As a parent, it’s important to observe your child. Note symptoms that are severe or interfere with school or home life if you suspect he or she has been impacted by trauma. The Child Welfare Information Gateway provides a fact sheet with details.

Care at Home

Helping your child through trauma begins at home. These tips can help guide you in creating the safe, supportive and nurturing environment they need:

Identify triggers: Something you say or do, or something in your home environment, could be triggering your child’s traumatic memories. Pay attention to what distracts or scares him or her, or emotions that don’t seem to fit a situation.

Stay present: Offer encouragement, reassurance and attention in whatever way your child needs at the moment. If your child wants to talk about their experience, be available to listen.

Control your emotions: Even in the most trying situations, it’s important to remain calm.

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