This article has looked at trauma and its impact on children and the parental figures who are caring for them. It highlights the various aspects of trauma; primary, secondary and vicarious trauma; the pervasive and long-lasting nature of trauma; and its impact on family life. The article stresses that both children and foster carers can suffer from all aspects of trauma.
Abused and neglected children have clearly had primary trauma experiences that they are likely to re-enact in new homes. The resulting challenging behaviours can lead to new carers experiencing primary trauma in the environment in which they should feel safest; this can be experienced with a level of pervasiveness and intensity that can be overwhelming. This needs to be recognised to reduce the feelings of isolation and lack of understanding that can perpetuate primary trauma experiences for both adults and children.
Empathy is seen as an essential element in being a caring and successful parenting figure; it is this skill that allows carers to stand in their children’s shoes, understand the nature of their difficulties and help them begin the repair process. However the very ability to engage in this way is what places carers at risk for developing secondary trauma. It is vital that professionals working with and supporting parenting figures recognise this and interpret carers’ actions in light of the stresses of caring for traumatised children. Empathetic support is more likely to help carers continue to care for the damaged children in their care, than criticism and blame.
The impact of secondary trauma for birth children or siblings of an aggressive, acting out child should not be underestimated. Birth children may witness behaviours that leave them distressed and they may feel they cannot share this distress with parents who are themselves under considerable stress. A ‘compliant’ sibling may see their more overtly acting out sibling as a threat to a placement in which they have started to feel a sense of security and attachment. Such children may feel that they cannot act out their own distress for fear that this will tip their carers ‘over the edge’.
Vicarious trauma may be experienced by wider family members and by partners who are less involved in the caring role. Worrying about what is happening at home when they are at work and fear of being overwhelmed can lead partners to withdraw and thus lead to an increase in family stress.
Parents and siblings of parenting figures can struggle to understand why a child might continue to act out their inner distress especially if the child has been living in the family home for a protracted period. This can lead to wider family members being angry with either the child or their family member or both. Anger with a child can increase that child’s trauma reaction; their belief that they are ‘bad’ and unworthy of being understood and supported can increase. It can lead to unhelpful advice being offered; for example statements that ‘all children do that’ or exhorting that the carer is less/more strict, less/more loving etc. This does not help carers to feel understood and reduces their capacity to seek support from the family that may have offered support, pre-placement. This, in turn, can lead to increased feelings of isolation and increased secondary trauma reaction.
An African proverb suggests that it takes a community to raise a child. While traumatised children need to develop a secure attachment to their primary carers this needs to be within a context of societal (community) understanding of the impact of trauma on children and the people who have the compassion and empathy to care for them and attempt to help them repair. In this sense we, as the wider community, have a shared responsibility to offer a listening ear and support for those whose lives have been and continue to be touched by trauma.