Unfortunately, physical abuse is a reality for a lot of children in foster care, even if abuse is not the initial reason why they were removed from their parent’s care. And even children who were not abused themselves may have witnessed their parent being abused. This is called indirect abuse, and experts tell us that it can be just as traumatic as being the victim.
But as a foster or adoptive parent, how can we best help the kids in our home to deal with this trauma? Here are a few places to start:
Get professional help
First and foremost, recognize that unless you have a lot of specialized training, you are probably not equipped to handle this on your own. That’s okay! You can still be a significant force for healing in your foster child’s life.
Make sure the child has been set up with a good therapist, ideally one who has experience working with clients who have been physically abused. Talk to the therapist regularly about behaviors you are seeing and any concerns you may have. Don’t hesitate to ask for ideas or more information.
Learn as much as you can about abuse and its ramifications
Look for books and articles that talk about the impact of abuse on a developing brain. Attend training seminars. Talk to others who know more than you do. Ask questions, look for resources, and nag until you get the answers you need.
Also, find out as much as you can about your child and his or her story. This is not gossip or being nosy. On the contrary, this information can help you recognize and anticipate potential triggers. It can also help you know how to approach sticky situations and is a significant part of learning what makes this child tick. It won’t be comprehensive, but the more you can learn, the better.
Focus on safety
This is less about maintaining a child’s physical safety (though, of course, that is important), but creating a space where they feel safe emotionally. Watch carefully for the words, tone, and even gestures you use with your foster child, especially in areas of discipline. Some things may seem innocuous but may actually be extremely triggering for a child that has experienced abuse. Listen without judgment or overreaction (and be forewarned that often the most heartbreaking stories are told when you least expect them). Help your child set up appropriate boundaries (a child who has known abuse may be both overly fearful and not cautious enough).
Physical abuse certainly takes a significant toll on a child’s development and sense of self-worth. This impact can seem far-reaching and overwhelming, but with patience, a little help from experts, and time, your child can find healing, and you can help. Keep at it.