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Teaching the Traumatized Child

Updated: May 12, 2020

Many children enter foster homes carrying the weight of serious early traumatic experiences invading their thoughts and causing challenging behaviours for caregivers, teachers, and themselves. These behaviours can cause Vicarious Trauma to the people caring for them. This article will briefly cover different emotions and behaviours caused by trauma, and what we can do to manage them.


The emotions that are experienced by people who are traumatized include sadness, fear, anxiety, anger, resentment, powerless, rage, and hopeless.

Repetitive Thoughts

Thoughts can include repetitively thinking about what happened at home and past traumatic events, thinking that they are not smart, trying to figure out how they can fixthe problems, blaming themselves, blaming others, how to avoid situations and stay safe, plotting revenge, feeling like there is nothing they can do about the situation, strategizing how to get close to someone or how to not get attached to someone. These thought patterns can cause severe psychological damage.


Behaviours that foster parents, teachers, and other people in the traumatized person’s life may witness, depending on the child/youth’s age, may include frequent troubles in school, delayed mental functioning, aggression, withdrawing, clingy, seem not to hear, school refusal, phobias, risky behaviours, drug and alcohol use, shoplifting, premature sexual activity, personality changes (out-going to reclusive), depression, avoiding situations or people, self-harm, testing limits, power-struggles, and antagonistic.


Difficult behaviours may happen because the child in your care is/was being abused, neglected, and/or bullied at home or at school. Bullying causes the feelings mentioned above and therefore you will see challenging behaviours. When a child is picked on at school they are less likely to want to go. When a child feels they cannot keep up academically they will feel inadequate and act out in different ways depending on the individual and their circumstances. Children/youth will bully when they want to avoid being a target themselves.

All behaviour is a form of communication, look beyond the behaviours. What is driving it? What are they trying to tell you? Remember, deep down the child wants to do good, they want to fit in.

When an adult has power/control over a child/adolescent/youth, this can be a trigger for them. In the end, you will not win a power struggle with them. It may look like it on the outside, but you’ve both lost. People who have been traumatized will not be “fixed” right away. This happens slowly, over-time.

What to do:

Not all of these will work for everyone, but hopefully you find some useful strategies.

- Become aware of the earliest signs of negative feelings. This may come in the form of physical signs such as facial expressions or other subtle behaviours. De-escalate as early as possible; notice patterns: what are their triggers? what are your triggers? Prevent escalation of the situation by behaving calmly and helping the person calm. Keep your language simple. When emotions are high the brain is not able to function and reason properly. Do not try to “talk them down” in the middle of a high-stress situation as their brain is now in survival mode. Do not take part in a physical altercation. Let them go if they need time to cool down.

Other strategies:

- Recruit a team to help you. This could include teachers, counsellors, other adults your child connects to, their peers or other students at school to act as a mentor, other foster parents, your resource team, your foster parent coordinator, etc.

- Keep in consistent contact with teachers - plan

- Avoid power struggles

- Avoid an audience – go where you can talk alone to help calm the situation

- Allow them to have breaks or quiet time when needed

- Follow their behaviour plan or IEP if they have one – adapt as necessary

- During calm times, figure out with them what helps them feel better and have these coping mechanisms available

- Redirect their attention when you notice first signs of discomfort or agitation

- Listen to them, empathize with them, let them know you hear them, and understand them

- Counselling, mental health support, and if necessary a visit to their doctor

- Create a calm environment for them at home and in the classroom

- Advocate for them in their schools and other activities, recruit role models. Encourage teachers to create a “team” atmosphere in the classroom by creating get-to-know-each-other activities

- Build trusting relationships, give them a sense of consistency and security, connect with them

- Establish rules, limits, and consequences together (at home & at school). Keep rules to a minimum e.g.: be responsible, be respectful, come prepared

- Be compassionate but firm

- Be flexible in some circumstances

- Give them choices! This gives them the feeling of control over their life, this is key…

- Have mutual respect. They are adults-in-the-making and deserve respect no matter how old they are

Vicarious Trauma

Caring for and teaching children who are going through the toughest life-experiences can take a toll on the adults caring for them. There are feelings of guilt because we are not able to help them as much as we want to. It feels like a burden that we cannot take away their pain. These emotions can cause psychological and physical symptoms. To help alleviate your stress you need to care for yourself. This can be taking time to do activities that you enjoy, talk with others about how you are feeling, be aware of your symptoms so you know it is time for self-care. Also, physical activity, movie nights, reading a book, empower yourself by learning about trauma and building your skill-set, create your own coping plan to model coping skills for the child, avoid repetitive negative thoughts and think positively to encourage yourself, use humour to lighten-up! Lastly, learn something new, and find other ways to fill your cup.

Remember, you are making a difference. This is only a snap-shot of the child’s life and they will move on and likely do well. The little gifts of advice and encouragement you give them can last a lifetime. They just might come back in the future and say “thank you, you made a difference, you took the time for me.”


The Traumatized Child

Margaret Blaustein, PhD

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