How to Recognize Children’s Behaviors, Caused by Previous Abuse or Trauma
In my last post 5 Common Struggles of Foster and Adoptive Parents, we discussed the five major concerns parents reported about fostering or adopting. In this article, we will discuss behaviors that are common for children who have been previously abused or traumatized. Trauma can present itself in many different ways. Symptoms can be physical, emotional, or social. These symptoms can be hard to distinguish from normal misbehavior. In this article, I will help you recognize trauma-related behaviors that your child may be displaying.
Our bodies can have physiological responses to traumatic experiences. Without totally nerding out on the autonomic responses of the brain, I will just say that the brain is built to protect you at all costs. When we are in a dangerous situation, our fight-flight-freeze responses kick in. These prepare the body to protect you from harm. Responses like this can also occur when there is no actual danger present. The brain simply has to think there is a threat and it signals the body to respond. Physical responses to these signals can include stomach pains, shortness of breath, decreased appetite, toilet training regression, heart racing, increased startle response, trouble sleeping, and nightmares.
****physiological symptoms such as these should also be discussed with an MD to rule out a medical cause*****
The tricky part about these symptoms is that they may look like normal child behavior. Avoiding bedtime, for example, can be a common behavior for children. When normal interventions for these behaviors are not working we may want to consider a deeper issue. It may be helpful in this case to ask the child why they do not want to go to bed. They may say, “I was not done playing” or they could say, “Bad things happen when I sleep, remember when there was a fire in our old house?” Asking the child the motive behind their behavior could give you some clarity on whether it is trauma-related or not.
Emotional symptoms can be much less apparent than physical symptoms. They are seen through the child’s behaviors but are not often correctly interpreted. Emotional symptoms can include fear, nervousness around people, separation anxiety, panic, guilt, self-blame, irritability, anger, detachment, withdrawal, isolation, crying, and depression. All of these emotions can be symptomatic of trauma if they are persistent. Most children cannot tell you all of their emotions about their trauma right away. However, having a supportive caregiver will allow them to feel safe enough to share these feelings eventually.
These emotions can also be seen in the child’s behaviors. The behavior of avoidance can be indicative of feelings of fear and nervousness. The urge to avoid what you fear is natural, especially when there is precedent. For example, if a child is bitten by a dog, they are more likely to avoid all dogs and places where there may be dogs, like the park. They may scream, cry, hide, or become very attached to you while they are at the park and not want to play with other kids. These actions are all related to how the child feels about their traumatic event. Many behaviors may be caused by emotional symptoms and can lead to social impairment.
As a therapist, one of the criteria we look for when diagnosing a client is how their symptoms are affecting their functioning in key areas of their lives. For children and teens, we look to see if their functioning is impaired at home with their families, at school with their teachers, or with their friends. Impairments in one or more of these systems could be caused by trauma-related emotions leading to trauma-related behaviors. Our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors are all connected in the cognitive triangle which I will explain in my next blog post The Trauma-Focused Cognitive Triangle.
Behaviors that can impair social functioning include Aggression, avoidance, teen drug and alcohol use, trouble concentration, zoning out or dissociating, trouble in school, lying, and trouble regulating emotions (ie. difficulty calming down). These behaviors and more can be so difficult to handle. A little moment of validation for parents here. If you are struggling with some of these behaviors exhibited by your child, please know that you are not alone. Many parents and foster parents tell me how hard it is to handle their child’s trauma-related behaviors and that they feel completely helpless and overwhelmed at times. That being said, there is hope and help. Therapy designed to address the trauma and give children better coping skills can decrease trauma-related behaviors.
One behavior that I want to give special attention to is lying. Foster and adoptive parents report this as one of the most frequent and difficult challenges they face. Lying is extremely common for children who have been abused. I have had many parents tell me that their child lies about even small mistakes like forgetting to fill the dog bowl. Many parents have a hard time when their child lies to them, and it hurts the trust in the relationship. While lying is unacceptable behavior, it is not typically done out of malice. Many children who have been abused lie out of self-preservation.
A child who came from a home where not filling the dog bowl would have resulted in physical abuse will be more likely to lie even in a safe environment because they learned that their lies keep them safe. It may be difficult but not all hope is lost. If you find your child telling lies, let them know that the behavior is unacceptable but also that they are safe and loved in your home. Praise them heavily when they do tell the truth and give them a couple of opportunities to do so. It is also important to be clear and consistent on the consequences of misbehavior so that the child knows what to expect when they do slip up and they can be confident that it does not involve abuse.
Trauma-related symptoms and behaviors can look different for each child. It is important to remember that these behaviors can be addressed in therapy and symptoms reduced. Children are incredibly resilient, but they are not unaffected by their traumatic past. If your child is suffering from some of the symptoms mentioned in this article, please seek a licensed mental health therapist in your state. If you are a parent, foster parent, or adoptive parent living in the state of Illinois and in need of support while managing your child’s mental health needs, email me at [email protected] to join our free monthly parent’s support group.