Some Insight Into How We Carry Trauma in Our Bodies

Photo by Matt Popovich on Unsplash

Last Wednesday, while my older two kids were at school and my younger two kids were in my bedroom watching a video, I was tidying up the living room and wiping down the dining room table when I glanced out the front window just as a police cruiser pulled up in front of my house. It parked, and an officer got out.

While we do live in the city and there is a fair amount of crime in our area, a police cruiser parked in front of our house on our dead-end street is odd. So I watched to see what he was doing.

It was immediately evident he was chasing someone. He had his hand on his holster and everything about his body language told me he could see the person he was chasing, who appeared to be running between my neighbors’ homes.

After a few minutes, I started hearing sirens. Four more police cars pulled up in our street and officers got out and joined the chase. My head was spinning. Who are they chasing? Why can’t they catch him? Am I about to witness a police shooting? My kids are right upstairs—are they about to witness a police shooting?! I was glued to the window, standing a bit to the side and peeking out from behind a curtain, praying the DVD I had put on wouldn’t end so my kids would stay upstairs in my room.

I was very calm and assumed that everything was going to be OK. I live a very privileged life, in which this kind of thing is quite unexpected, and I also have a lot of faith in law enforcement. Still, I really did not want to watch them shoot or tase someone.

The police were surrounding my 91-year-old neighbor’s house. I called him to tell him to stay inside and lock his doors, but I only got his machine. I started to panic that someone had entered his house and he was in danger. I thought of my own children upstairs and our back door, which is almost always wide open to the back yard. What if whomever they were chasing came into our yard? (I am so grateful for our dog, Samson, who is an excellent watch dog and who has a pretty fierce bark. I always feel a bit safer knowing he’s on patrol!)

After a few minutes, everyone quickly got back into their cars and took off, lights on and sirens blaring. I stood there feeling a bit lost.

I was hosting a play date with several families from my kids’ preschool at noon that day. The last police car left about twenty minutes before families starting arriving, and we launched in to chatting, supervising and enjoying not being home alone trying to entertain our kids. As little girls ran around in princess dresses and toddlers played with a wooden train, I told the moms about the excitement in our front yard just before they came over, and we laughed at the irony of having a playdate for preschoolers while police were chasing a violent suspect around in our front yard. (I later learned that they were chasing a man with outstanding warrants for violent offenses. They had approached him in the apartment complex behind our house, he fled, and they gave chase. They apprehended him after he ran into some woods behind my neighbor’s house.) We had a great time connecting and they all left around two hours later.

That afternoon, I felt so odd. I was breathing differently, as if I couldn’t get enough oxygen. I felt hyper-aware, like I needed to check in with the kids, even though I knew they were playing in the next room. I couldn’t focus at all—I kept walking into one room and then forgetting why I was there (more than I usually do!). And every so often, my heart would start pounding hard for no reason at all. Why do I feel so strange?! I kept wondering.

Then it hit me: I had experienced something traumatic earlier in the day and had moved on as if it were nothing.

Five-plus police officers were chasing a violent suspect around my neighbors’ houses while I watched from my front window. Yes, everything turned out OK. Yes, they caught him. No, we were never in danger. But it was a traumatic (albeit brief) event in my otherwise predictable day, and my body, mind, and soul needed to process it. Until I did, until I recognized that what happened was a big deal for me and that it left me feeling really uneasy, my body would keep letting me know that something was wrong.

This was such a good insight into how the trauma my kids have experienced still lives in their bodies. What they’ve seen, heard, and lived through is far more severe and intense than a short police chase in the front yard. And at their young ages, they have not had the tools to process their experiences (which include being left alone for hours strapped in a car seat, being abused sexually and emotionally, witnessing domestic violence, watching parents be arrested, being separated abruptly and without warning from their moms, being placed with strangers, being separated from additional primary caregivers when they were in foster care for years and then reunified, before being placed back in foster care with new strangers, etc.)

Our kids carry their trauma around. It shows up in how they react when provoked (we would call them “overreactions”), how many times they ask what we are doing today, how concerned they are with when we are eating next and what will be served, how many times they come to see where we are and what we’re doing (we would call these things “hypervigilance”), and how hard it is for them to shut their minds off at night and go to sleep. A child who carries a lot of trauma in her body perceives others as a threat, even when they’re not. A child who carries a lot of trauma around in his body is likely to exhibit fight, flight, or freeze responses anytime they feel threatened, even if the “threat” is what we call “nothing.” Her ability to discern who and what is safe is compromised. A child who carries a lot of trauma in her body is often mistaken for a child with ADHD—she can’t sit still, she talks a lot, and she has a lot of trouble with mental focus.

This experience helped give me some insight into my kids’ lived reality. It also got me thinking about the fact that we who care for children with traumatic backgrounds need to reflect more often on things from our own past—traumatic events big and small that are part of our formation.

How about you? Have you taken time to examine where you might be carrying experiences of past trauma around in your body? Can you relate to some of the things your foster child might be experiencing?

If not, I recommend that you do. It will build empathy and compassion for the challenges they face as they seek to figure out their place in the world even as they carry around the effects of traumatic events in their lives.

That First Night in Foster Care

Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

Try for a moment to put yourself into your foster child’s shoes.

Close your eyes and imagine you are with your mom and your baby brother. You are staying at a motel and Spongebob Squarepants is on TV. Suddenly, someone knocks at the door and two police officers come in and start talking to your mom. She starts to cry or yell, and then one takes you by the hand and tells you to come with him while the other one picks up your baby brother.

No one tells you to grab your toy, so you don’t. You just get into the back of his police car. Your mom is crying and you’re scared. The policeman gives you a sucker—he even says you can have two!—and then he takes you to an office building, where you sit in a room with some toys, but no one to play with you. They take your brother to another room (he is asleep in his car seat). Adults with folders and papers in their hands come and go, talking quietly with each other and smiling occasionally at you.

Then, after some time (a few hours perhaps?), another adult you’ve never met introduces herself to you. She may say that her job is to help keep you safe (or something like that), and she tells you to come with her to her car. You’re going to have a sleepover with some “nice people” tonight. She grabs a backpack from a closet that (you will find out later) has clothes you’ve never seen and a toothbrush that isn’t yours and a someone else’s stuffed animal.

Your baby brother does not come with you.

You drive for a long time. The person who is driving stops at Burger King and buys you a kid’s meal, then you arrive at a house you’ve never been to before. You walk inside the house and a strange woman smiles at you, introduces herself and shows you the room where you’re going to sleep.

It smells funny in this house.

The bed is so different from where you sleep at home with your mom. In fact, you sleep with her every night and now you’re in a strange room, in a strange bed by yourself. The woman who lives there opens the backpack you brought and there are some pajamas inside. She tells you to put them on. She saids it’s time to “brush your teeth,” but this is not something you usually do, so you look at her without moving. She says it again, and you don’t know what you’re supposed to do. Finally, she finds the toothbrush inside the bag (or she gets one she already had) and puts some toothpaste on it. You take the toothpaste and suck it off of the toothbrush and the woman tells you to brush your teeth, but you don’t know what she means, so you just stare at her. Finally, she takes the toothbrush and tells you to open your mouth, and she starts scrubbing your teeth. It feels weird and you don’t like it and you’re starting to feel really mad. But you don’t know this person, you don’t know what she’ll do, so you just go along with it—for now.

Finally, she tells you to pick out a book and sit on the bed. None of the books you like are there, but you choose one from the shelf. She sits next to you and starts to read. She touches your hand and it feels weird.

She feels weird.

You miss your mom. You wonder about your baby brother. You do not want to be here, but no one asked you what you want. The woman finishes the book, tells you to lie down and tucks the blanket around you. It’s doesn’t feel like your blanket, and it smells weird. She turns a nightlight on, but it’s not very bright and when she leaves the room, you turn the light back on. The woman comes back in, tells you it’s late and time for sleep and turns the light back off.

You hate her. This is not how your mom does it. Your mom stays up late and so do you. You play or watch TV until you fall asleep. It is so strange to be lying in this bed, alone and wide awake. But what can you do? Where can you go?

You lie there feeling afraid, angry and confused. You have no idea why you’re here. You have no idea how long you’ll be here. You have no idea when you’ll see your mom again. You start to cry.

At some point, you fall asleep.

# # #

In the next few posts, I’m going to respond to a question I’ve been asked several times: “How do you handle it when your foster child rages?” In fact, this is the topic we’ll explore on this Thursday’s Flourishing Foster Parent Coaching Call.

But before I dig in to the “HOW,” I want to explore the “WHY,” and that requires taking some time to step into your foster child’s shoes (as much as is possible) when they come into your care. As much as you try to be a kind, good foster parent, the bottom line is you are a stranger, and everything about your house and your toys and your food is strange.

It’s really important that we foster parents internalize this truth: the experience of coming into your home is yet another traumatic event in this child’s life.

In the next post I’ll dig in a bit more to the “WHY” behind your foster child’s “Big Feelings,” which can often be expressed with fits of rage. Then, after we have explored the “WHY,” we’ll also get into some ideas for “HOW” to respond.

Foster Parenting with Trauma in Mind

Dena Johnson, Trauma and Attachment Therapist

This week’s Coaching Call is one I am very excited about. I’ll be welcoming Trauma and Attachment Therapist Dena Johnson to talk about “Parenting with Trauma in Mind.” We are meeting online (Google Meets) on Wednesday, March 27 at 2:00 PM (PST).

(Members of The Flourishing Foster Parent are invited to attend online Coaching Calls, which are 30-minute talks from experienced foster parents or professionals in fields relevant to foster parenting followed by a 30-minute facilitated discussion with everyone on the call. This is a great opportunity for foster parents to receive training and encouragement!)

If you are not yet a member of The Flourishing Foster Parent, don’t worry—there’s time! Click here to join. Once you’ve signed up, you’ll receive a link to access the Coaching Call.

The cost is only $5 per month, which covers all of that month’s Coaching Calls—and you don’t even have to leave your house to participate! Information and real-time engagement with other foster parents comes right to your computer!

Coaching Calls take place three to four times per month, and they each happen at different times (10 AM, 2 PM, 7 PM, all PST) so ideally everyone can find one that works for their schedule each month. And if you can’t actually make the calls, don’t worry—the topical portion of the call will be recorded and made available to members. (I am not recording the discussion portion, as I want people to feel free to share and not worry about their comments being recorded.)

If you have any questions, please reach out to me at admin@theflourishingfosterparent.com. Otherwise, I hope to see you tomorrow on the call!

What topics would you like to see covered in future Coaching Calls?