In my last blog post and my most recent YouTube video, I began responding to a request from several members of The Flourishing Foster Parent community who asked me to talk about how to handle it when your foster child exhibits explosive emotional outbursts. I shared in those posts that before we can get into how to handle those big expressions of emotion, we need to take a moment to try to understand some of our kids’ back story and try to step into their shoes. I call it the “trauma on top of trauma” that affects many children in foster care, when they are removed from the only sense of “normal” they’ve ever known and placed with strangers.
While there are certainly many layers to a child’s emotional journey, and many reasons a child might become emotionally escalated, there are four things I have seen over and over in my years as a foster parent that often result in kids feeling and expressing Very Big Feelings.
Knowing the why behind a child’s challenging behavior can help us have more compassion and figure out constructive ways to help them when they are “in the red.” It’s important for trauma-informed caregivers to pay special attention to what is driving a child’s rage, so we can respond appropriately and meet them where they’re at.
First, children need to feel a sense of empowerment and agency. They need to feel like they have some say in the things that matter in their lives. For many foster youth, this is all but gone. Those in foster care often feel completely disempowered, and while kids who need to feel like they have some control in their lives might respond in many different ways, some will lash out in anger—often in big and prolonged ways.
Second, when someone experiences trauma, they often experience one of three panic responses: fight, flight, or freeze. The fight response will come out in different ways, which may include:
- Hands in fists, desire to punch, rip
- Flexed/tight jaw, grinding teeth, snarl
- Fight in eyes, glaring, fight in voice
- Desire to stomp, kick, smash with legs, feet
- Feelings of anger/rage
- Homicidal/suicidal feelings
- Knotted stomach/nausea, burning stomach
- Metaphors like bombs, volcanoes erupting
- (Source: TraumaRecovery.ca)
When someone’s trauma response is to fight, and they are in the midst of “trauma on top of trauma,” they will likely be easily provoked and rapidly escalate emotionally, resulting in massive tantrums, destructive behavior, or prolonged yelling/screaming.
Third, your foster child may never have seen healthy emotional regulation. When it comes to parenting (or any kind of teaching, really), more is caught than taught. If a child has only lived in chaotic environments, where they frequently witnessed domestic violence or other kinds of conflict between caregivers, they will likely lack tools for healthy emotional regulation. If they have seen a lot of yelling and raging, they are more likely to yell and rage.
Fourth, your foster child may have neurological differences that stunt their ability to regulate their emotions. For example, those who were exposed to illicit substances (drugs and alcohol) in utero may experience stunted brain development, which can affect the frontal lobe of the brain—a.k.a. “The Control Panel,” which controls emotional responses and judgement, among other things. When that portion of the brain is affected, a person has a much harder time regulating his or her own emotions and emotional reactions. The frontal lobe is also the part of the brain most likely to be damaged in cases of severe abuse or injury. Such brain injuries can make it very hard for a child to be logical or rational—especially when that child is feeling threatened (panicked) or provoked.
I’ll be the first to tell you—being aware of the reasons for a child’s challenging behavior does not always make it any easier to handle. But it is a very good starting point if you want to develop your skills as a foster parent and help the children entrusted to your care develop healthy emotional responses.