Caring for Traumatized Children


Siobhan Rowe
Focus on Adoption magazine

By Siobhan Rowe

After over 28 years as a foster parent, Anne Melcombe has been right on the front line of caring for traumatized children. She has seen just about every possible trauma reaction, and has learned different ways to respond to each. She spoke to AFABC about what she’s learned.

How have children that you have cared for showed signs of trauma?

I’ve probably seen all the signs: a lack of ability to stay in the here and now, and a child either completely overreacting to situations or not reacting to something one would expect a reaction to. One young girl described something horrific that her mother did, in the most matter of fact way, as though it was an everyday thing. Hypervigilance, watchfulness and wariness are also signs I’ve often seen. Another is that traumatized children often get emotionally and developmentally stuck at the age at which they experienced trauma.

How is this reflected in behaviour?

Well, often in the most basic ways. Toileting can be an issue. I have cared for children as old as 10 who poop on the floor and wet the bed every night. While it can be very hard to deal with, knowing that it’s about the child’s anger and control, helps a lot. The worst thing a parent can do is to personalize such behaviour - it’s not about them; it might sound trite, but such behaviour really is a cry for help.

Many of the traumatized children I’ve dealt with also have had food issues. I have had children who want to eat all the time and who are constantly checking to see if there is food available - some hoard food in their rooms. Sleeping issues, of course, are another huge problem. I also had one child who barely spoke five words even though he was five.

How did you help?

Well, on the food front, I shopped a lot! I always had healthy snacks available and, for some kids, I even posted the week’s menus on the fridge so that the kids felt secure that food was coming and what it was.  As far as the pooping went, I focused on having specific toiletting times, and I expected the child to help me clean up. He was eight. I also tried to give him a sense of power in different ways, like choosing his clothes and toys. I also let him know that I was allowing him to make the decisions. He didn’t have the same toileting problem at school, so I knew it was an issue about safety and security at home. I did everything I could to help him feel safe. Regarding sleeping, depending on the circumstances, I let children sleep with me; I slept in their room, or they bedded down on a cot in my room. I was always available for the kids at night. It’s important for parents to remember that children with sleep issues are not just trying to irritate their parents.

The little boy that could barely talk was very affectionate and liked closeness. So, for months we were  attached at the hip.  It took six months, but as he became surer that he was safe, he started to communicate more. He also had speech and play therapy which helped a lot. By the time he was five, he graduated from speech therapy.

How can parents prepare for parenting a traumatized child?

They should read and read about trauma and attachment, and grief and loss. I would also recommend joining a support group and talking to other parents caring for traumatized children. AFABC can link them up. If trauma is clearly an issue, before a child comes home parents and social workers should line up a child therapist experienced in trauma and attachment.

What did you find helpful?

In addition to a good child therapist, I found play therapy, and art therapy, really helped some of the children.

What skills do parents need?

Persistence, a really good sense of humour, and an excellent acting ability - even when you are shaking inside with anger, rage or despair, you can’t let the child know it. Parents should be open to accepting professional help and to having a support network. If there are two parents, it’s crucial that they work together. I remember one child that gave me a really hard time but was “perfect” around my husband. It was infuriating. We handled that by my husband saying to the child, “That’s my wife and you need to treat her respectfully.” When we were all together my husband checked his behaviour, which also sent a strong message. Parents who care for traumatized children also need to be able to pick their battles - some things are just not worth the effort!