When some children enter the foster care system, they have experienced adversity and trauma in their young lives. As caring foster carers, it is so important that we understand the impacts this can have as we welcome these children into our homes. The experience of being removed from their families and entering into foster care is in itself a traumatic event, but some of these young children and teenagers have already witnessed or endured traumatic experiences like abuse, neglect, or family violence. These adverse experiences can disrupt their development, challenge their sense of safety, and negatively impact their social and emotional well-being.  

Trauma affects the way children react to and interpret events. They may see threats when there are none or overreact to small stresses. Unde&rstanding the role of trauma in shaping behaviour can help foster carers respond in healing ways rather than reacting punitively when children’s behaviours challenge us. 

Seeing all behaviour as communication, even that which seems unfounded, illogical, or aggressive, is key. Creating feelings of safety, connectedness, and empowerment allows wounded children to overcome fight, flight or freeze responses and to self-regulate again. By becoming trauma-informed, foster carers can play a pivotal role in helping foster children feel safe enough to start to heal. The way we welcome them in the critical early days and weeks sets the tone for the recovery process ahead.

The Effects of Trauma on Brain Development

Trauma and chronic stress in early childhood can change how a child’s brain develops in profound ways. Neuroscience shows that repeated traumatic experiences cause children to operate in “fight or flight” survival mode, using more basic parts of their brain at the expense of developing higher functioning in areas like emotional regulation and decision making. The brains of traumatised children literally adapt to deal with threats to safety by becoming wired to react to perceived danger. This comes at a high cost, as critical periods for emotional, social and language development can be disrupted.

So, behaviours arising from past trauma are not a sign of “bad behaviour” or that a child “hasn’t developed yet”. Rather, it shows their brains adapted to cope with extremely challenging early life experiences. Trauma has rewired how they respond. 

As foster families, remembering this can help us respond with great empathy, insight and support. Seeing all behaviour as communication – even that which seems unfounded or aggressive – is key. With patience and care, new neural pathways can form to allow healing and growth.

Behavioural Challenges

Children who have experienced trauma like abuse or neglect can struggle to trust adults or feel safe opening up. Some common behaviours, like reluctance to make eye contact, difficulty expressing emotions verbally, or getting very upset by changes, can be trauma responses. Fight-or-flight instincts kick in, so they may react strongly to minor frustrations or misperceive discipline as violence. They struggle with self-regulation and have underdeveloped impulse control. 

Outbursts, defiance, or aggression can arise when feelings overwhelm a child’s underdeveloped coping abilities. Regressions are common too – trauma can delay development, so impacted children may act younger than their age. Bedwetting, difficulty sleeping, clinging, or lack of stranger wariness are examples. Viewing all behaviour through a trauma-informed lens – even that which seems illogical or extreme – helps us understand the root causes and respond in constructive, empathetic ways. With time, care, and feelings of safety, new neural pathways can form to support positive behaviour.

Carers should not take such behaviours personally. With time, consistency and compassion, trauma behaviours can lessen as children learn they are safe and cared about. Small things like predictable routines, respecting personal space and giving them some control over decisions can help.

Healing Through Relationships

Though the foster system aims to provide stability to vulnerable children, moving between placements can exacerbate feelings of insecurity and loss. The more placements a child has, the harder forming attachments may be. Each separation is another trauma, reinforcing beliefs that they are unlovable, or others cannot be trusted. This heartbreak fuels challenging behaviours, damaging trust exponentially.  

But positive relationships are also the most powerful remedy for childhood trauma. Unconditional love and consistency from carers enables children to gradually trust again. Many young people who grow up in care share that while therapy has its place in healing, nothing was more vital than having a foster carer who believed in them unconditionally during their darkest moments. It was that glimmer of hope provided through caring foster relationships that set them on the path to overcoming early trauma.

Caring Despite the Challenges

Make no mistake: fostering children with trauma histories presents very real challenges for carers. There may be distressing behaviours, lapses of trust, risky conduct, patches of deep withdrawal or depression. Progress may seem painfully slow or stall altogether. Emotional and physical exhaustion for carers is common. Still, by educating themselves on trauma, utilising available support networks, and, above all, leading with compassion over judgment, foster carers have an incredible power to help hurting children rediscover light amidst the darkness. 

Over time, compassion fatigue can set in, leading to foster parent burnout. Signs include emotional exhaustion, cynicism, feeling constantly frustrated or irritated, decreased empathy, disrupted sleep, changes in appetite, getting sick often, and wanting to quit fostering altogether. Support is vital before burnout compromises abilities to care for vulnerable children. 

Understanding secondary trauma and burnout risk is so important, as exhausted or overwhelmed carers struggle to be fully present. It is vital for carers to practice intensive self-care as well, so they can be resilient enough to meet each child’s needs consistently with empathy and insight. Seeking support groups, respite care if needed, counselling services, or simply taking time to decompress allows carers to sustain this demanding work. 

Renewing themselves regularly helps carers lean into the challenges. 

With immense patience and unconditional care, even the most wounded child can hope again. It may take years of nurture for children to undo survival instincts and neural pathways. Still, by offering them a safe harbour and re-patterning responses, foster carers help reopen critical developmental windows. And that makes all the difference.