How trauma can trigger trauma in foster care
When I was thinking about secondary trauma in fostering, as I often do, I went on a bit of a thought-fuelled journey as I thought about the topic from various angles.
Should I be exploring?
1. Vicarious trauma?
2. Post-traumatic stress?
3. Secondary trauma?
4. Something else?
In the course of this I decided three things. Firstly, that it will be different for each person concerned, secondly, that secondary traumatic stress sounded a better fit and thirdly, that individuals must make their own minds up but awareness is key!
Anyone who cares for, raises and works with children can be affected by things the children may do, say or simply by knowing the story of their abuse. This is especially true for foster carers, adoptive parents and kinship carers. Children may act out scenes in role play or in their daily interactions which they can’t put into words and are unable to remember but need to communicate in the only way they can. They may also drop things into conversations during the course of the day, in the bath, at the park, at Halloween, when hearing someone hums a song as it triggers a memory.
Much like trauma, memories are slippery, complex critters we are still learning about. In the Whole Brain Child, Siegel and Bryson very helpfully nail the differences between implicit and explicit memories and this I have found to be very useful in understanding the reactions and actions of traumatised children I have cared for AND my reactions and actions towards them!
“We encode implicit memories throughout our lives, and in the first eighteen months we encode only implicit memories…..implicit memories cause us to form expectations about the way the world works, based on our previous experience. Siegel & Bryson, 2012
For example, once we learn to drive a car we do it automatically and without thinking we change gear, use the clutch etc. it’s an internalised embedded memory for us.
As we are driving we may think about the first time we ever got behind the wheel, how excited and scared we were and what the first stuttering kangaroo jumps down the road felt like. That’s an explicit memory of an event we have pulled out of our memory and can relive and put into words.
How I have seen this expressed over the years is in children refusing, in a seemingly illogical way, to do everyday things, even if they have done them before. Having a strong reaction to someone they haven’t met before, either being overly friendly with them or refusing to come into the room and other confusing behaviours which they can’t explain and we struggle to understand. This in turn can trigger a reaction in us as carers.
After all we are all emotionally led beings, and children, especially anxious traumatised ones are very driven to work out our emotional state, if they can. They then need to tune into it and learn what gets the biggest response from us as that will ensure we offer a moment of attachment when and wherever they need it.
I am not suggesting that children do this in a ‘thought through’ way, far from it. Attachment to the main carer giver is a child’s best hope of survival and so, even when it’s not in their best interests, they are driven to do it, unless they are so traumatised this drive has shut down, which is fairly rare. As we know, memories just pop into our head as and when they do, or if something feels familiar and we then match it to a previously held memory pattern of a sight, sound, smell, taste or touch. This goes on for children and their carers alike and if the memory is a pre-verbal one it may pop up and give us a reaction we did not anticipate.
So if we think for a moment about the secondary traumatic stress which can arise from caring for a traumatised child or children, then self-care and knowledge are important. The more emotionally exhausted we are the more likely it is that the child will instinctively pick up on this drop in energy and it will make them more anxious. Likewise if they share some trauma or role play a disturbing scene, it may be of sexual abuse or extreme violence which may in turn trigger a strong traumatic memory in us which can be very debilitating and deregulating, which in turn the child will most probably sense but not understand.
This may sound familiar, from a website called, The National Child Traumatic Stress Network
Secondary traumatic stress is the emotional duress that results when an individual hears about the first hand trauma experiences of another. Its symptoms mimic those of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Accordingly, individuals affected by secondary stress may find themselves re-experiencing personal trauma or notice an increase in arousal and avoidance reactions related to the indirect trauma exposure. They may also experience changes in memory and perception; alterations in their sense of self-efficacy; a depletion of personal resources; and disruption in their perceptions of safety, trust, and independence.
The bottom line in all of this is none of us are immune and that old ‘chestnut’ SELF-CARE is beyond essential for any carer, parent or professional but especially when living with another’s trauma. Having someone to talk to who will not judge you or trying to ‘fix’ you, the situation or the child but is listening to how you feel, or how awful it was or just how [email protected]*+ed off you feel at this present moment is a must. At times it may be that such a strong secondary trauma is triggered in us we need to access counselling for a time so we have a place to process and repackage this trauma and stress which then offers us a space and time too.
Just having an awareness of our own vulnerabilities and knowing that we won’t always understand our reactions or the child we are caring for is OK. Offering ourselves kindness and compassion, seeking support and advice is essential stuff and is the strength and courage I see again and again in the foster carers I have the privilege to know and support.