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Childhood Trauma in Wisconsin Foster Care

Children in Wisconsin foster care who have experienced traumatic events need to feel safe and loved. Foster parents provide a stable, loving environment in which kids can begin to heal. Although childhood trauma can have serious, lasting effects, there is hope for kids in foster care. Learning about trauma and using trauma-informed care principles can help a child's path to healing.

Kids in Wisconsin foster care have a variety of trauma histories.

Young and older foster children alike display a variety of emotions and behaviors not easily understood. Trauma is an emotional response to an intense event or from exposure to multiple events. Foster children placed with CCR have been severely neglected or abused for prolonged periods of time. Their higher levels of trauma mean CCR foster parents must have a flexible day-to-day schedule. Caring for kids with trauma histories can be challenging, but kids can heal with dependable support in place. Traumatic events may include:

  • Emotional, sexual, and/or physical abuse
  • Witnessing family or community violence
  • Witnessing harm to a loved one or pet
  • Effects of poverty, including not having enough food to eat
  • Unpredictable parental behaviors
  • Witnessing drug use
  • Exposure to pornography

In addition to the above, entering foster care means being removed from family, friends, and school. Yet, another traumatic event. Subsequently, while in foster care, kids are often shuffled in and out of foster homes. Our hope is that when a child is placed in a CCR foster home, it will be the last or only foster home the child will be in.

Childhood trauma can interfere with normal brain development.

For many children who have experienced trauma, their development lags behind their age in calendar years. It may be normal for a foster child to exhibit behaviors that are more common in younger children.

School-age children placed in CCR foster homes may exhibit:

  • • Difficulty paying attention
    • Attention-seeking or acting out
    • Frequent tears or sadness
    • Talking often about scary feelings and ideas
    • Difficulty transitioning from one activity to the next
    • Fighting with peers or adults
    • Changes in school performance
    • Sexual awareness
    • Eating much more or less than peers
    • Getting into trouble at home or school
    • Frequent headaches or stomachaches with no apparent cause
    • Behaviors common to younger children (thumbsucking, bed-wetting, fear of the dark)

ADHD, ODD, and IED are common with foster children.

  • Children who have difficulty concentrating may be diagnosed with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). Children who appear anxious or easily overwhelmed by emotions may be diagnosed with anxiety or depression. Many children who have trouble with the unexpected may respond by trying to control every situation or show extreme reactions to change. In some cases, behaviors might be labeled ODD (oppositional defiant disorder) or intermittent explosive disorder (IED).
  • Dissociation in response to a trauma trigger may be viewed as defiance of authority, or it may be diagnosed as depression, ADHD (inattentive type), or even a developmental delay. It may be necessary to treat these diagnoses with traditional mental health approaches (including medications, where indicated) in the short term. However, treating the underlying cause by addressing the child’s
    experience of trauma will be more effective in the long run.

Teens in Wisconsin foster care are at high risk of mental health diagnosis

Our greatest need is foster families wishing to help teens. Helping a teen prepare for adulthood can be very rewarding. Many teens in foster care experience growth and healing simply by living in a loving, family environment. In addition, structure, accountability, and healthy relationships contribute greatly to the healing process.

Teens placed in CCR foster homes may exhibit:

  • Talking about the trauma constantly or denying that it happened
    Refusal to follow the rules or talking back frequently
    Nightmares. Being tired all the time, sleeping much more (or less) than peers
    Risky behaviors, fighting
    Not wanting to spend time with friends
    Using drugs or alcohol
  • Sexual awareness/activity
  • Risky use of social media/internet
  • Running away, getting into trouble with the law
The majority of teens aging out of foster care have a mental health diagnosis.

Trauma symptoms that are more severe or disruptive to a child’s ability to function at home or school may overlap with specific mental health diagnoses. CCR kids all have a treatment plan to address trauma histories. Timely, effective mental and behavioral health interventions help in the following ways:

Increase a child’s feelings of safety
Teach a child how to manage emotions, particularly when faced with trauma triggers
Help a child develop a positive view of him- or herself
Give a child a greater sense of control over his/her own life

All children in CCR foster homes are provided with mental health services to address trauma histories. In addition, foster parents have access to 24/7 support.

How to help foster children with trauma histories.

Identify trauma triggers. Something you are doing or saying, or something harmless in your home, may be triggering your foster child without either of you realizing it. It is important to watch for patterns of behavior and reactions that do not “fit” the situation. What distracts the child, makes him or her anxious, or results in a tantrum or outburst? Help the child avoid situations that trigger traumatic memories, at least until more healing has occurred.

Be emotionally and physically available. Some traumatized children act in ways that keep adults at a distance (whether they mean to or not). Provide attention, comfort, and encouragement in ways a
a foster child will accept.

Respond, don’t react. Your reactions may trigger a child or youth who is already feeling overwhelmed. When a child is upset, do what you can to keep calm: Lower your voice, acknowledge the child’s feelings, and be reassuring and honest.

Foster parents need to set reasonable and consistent limits and expectations and use praise for desirable behaviors. Don’t take the behavior personally. Allow the child to feel his or her feelings without judgment. Help him, or her find words and other acceptable ways of expressing feelings and offering praise when used.

Listen. Don’t avoid difficult topics or uncomfortable conversations. (But don’t force children to talk before they are ready.) Take their reactions seriously, reassure them that what happened was not their fault.

Be consistent and predictable. Develop a routine for meals, playtime, school work, and bedtime. Prepare your child in advance for changes or new experiences.

Be patient. Everyone heals differently from trauma, and trust does not develop overnight. Respecting each child’s own course of recovery is important.

Allow some control. Reasonable, age-appropriate choices encourage a child or youth’s sense of having control of his or her own life.

Encourage self-esteem. Positive experiences can help foster children recover from trauma and increase resilience.

Trauma can affect children’s behavior in ways that may be confusing or distressing for foster parents. It often impacts the long-term health and well-being of a child. However, with understanding, care, and
proper treatment (when necessary), foster children can heal and thrive.

To become a foster parent in Wisconsin and help kids in your community heal, contact us today!


*The information in this blog was taken from the Child Welfare Information Gateway.

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