I knew quite a bit about trauma and childhood behavior before I became a foster parent (or so I thought), but I had no idea what the healing process looked like. I was very equipped with the day-to-day explosions, but I didn’t understand what those trends looked like over the course of several months, or even years.
I’ve found out that the healing comes with certain repetitive behavioral patterns. When we identify these patterns and evaluate them, we can often pinpoint when kids from trauma are making positive progress. Although the healing process can be miserable, if we acknowledge it for what is, we can find comfort in it.
If we know they’re healing from their hurts, we can find hope in the hard parts.
Here’s a combination of what I’ve discovered for myself about healing cycles and what I’ve learned from therapists and psychiatrists who’ve helped us…
Kids who’ve gone through trauma don’t come in a standard, one-size-fits-all, box of pain. Some of them bottle their anger, some of them hide from it, some of them take it out on others, and some of them don’t even know they have it. Or maybe they do a combination of those things, and everyone around them feels the sting.
You’re probably not shocked by the fact that kids show symptoms of trauma in unpleasant ways. For example, kids who’ve been sexually abused might touch their private parts obsessively. Or kids who’ve been physically abused might bite at preschool. Or kids who’ve been neglected might hoard food.
What you may NOT know is that there are also “symptoms” of healing, and those symptoms often look like the exact opposite of healthiness.
From what I’ve seen, the healing process often goes in this order:
1) Suppression of trauma
2) Feeling of safety and security
3) Release of trauma
4) Emotional reaction to trauma
5) Fear of being alone again
6) Realization that they’re loved
5) Return to infancy/early childhood
6) “Growing up” again
7) Gradual return to normalcy
8) Suppression of remaining trauma
9) Repeat step one
We saw this cycle happen with the kids who lived in residential care with us, we’ve seen it in our foster daughter, and we saw it in the foster boy who lived with us for three short weeks.
Most recently, we went through that cycle with the boy who was here less than a month. He came into our home with physical and emotional abuse, plus a whole lot of neglect. To survive his home life, he suppressed all of that trauma down deep in his heart and shut his emotions off.
At school, he was either emotionally absent or emotionally aggressive. He was several years behind academically because of refusal to work, and his attendance was lacking. When he came to us, he was finishing a two-week stay in a children’s psychiatric facility. I worked with him (not this year, but the prior year) as his behavior teacher so he recognized me when he came into our home.
The first day, he was afraid to shut doors, turn lights out, or sit near anyone on the couch. Once two weeks had passed, he began to feel safe and secure, which allowed him to ASK for snuggles, ASK to be tucked in and prayed for at night, and ASK to earn positive rewards. The problem came around the third week.
You see, when a kid starts to feel safe and secure, they stop suppressing their emotions. And when they stop suppressing their emotions, they have to start to feel things again. And that can be REALLY painful.
The emotions they felt when they were abused or neglected come back to them full force.
They release the trauma (whether they want to or not), and they’re forced to relive painful experiences. They may become afraid, angry, aggressive, or needy. This could be a short time or a long time, but once they realize that they ARE safe and loved, then they can come out of that survival mode.
Our boy became aggressive when he relived his trauma. During the aggression, he said he was going to hurt another child in the home. He said he “didn’t want to,” but he had to because the other child was being annoying. And when he was annoying, his parents had hurt him.
After his “episode” was over and he’d calmed down, he realized that he was safe with me, and he became completely infantile. He crawled around on his hands and knees. He was extremely hungry. He cried, he whined, he wanted to sit on my lap.
Not all kids go through that severe of a regression, but many, many kids do regress while they relive their trauma. Our foster daughter shows regression during those phases by crying excessively, throwing temper tantrums, or asking to be held like a baby.
When our older boys in residential care regressed, they wanted to play little kid games or do activities that reminded them of childhood. Sometimes, they even dumped all their trash cans out, destroyed their rooms, or laughed manically. It’s a strange reaction, but we’ve seen it so many times in a row that I know it’s valid.
As soon as our foster son came out of his infantile stage, he slowly returned to normal. But, remember, normal for a foster kid is living in a place of suppressed trauma. So he went back to suppressing his pain, burying it deep down in his heart, and trying to follow the rules of the home.
Of course, by then, the team was already working on finding him a new placement so that the other children in the home could remain safe.
The awful part about this moment was that his aggression happened during a time of healing. We can’t ignore it–we MUST take children seriously when they threaten to hurt others–but it’s still a horrible circumstance. We know it wasn’t his fault.
So the next time you’re working with a child from trauma (or maybe you ARE the child from trauma), don’t be surprised when the healing process looks really, really messy.