Carers who look after children and young people who have experienced trauma may see many emotional, behavioural, social and developmental difficulties related to those experiences. Caring for these children and young people can be incredibly rewarding, but it can present its challenges. Because of this, it is crucial to develop an understanding of how trauma affects behaviour so you know how to respond in helpful ways.
The information and resources on this page will assist you to understand trauma and develop practical strategies for trauma-informed parenting.
If you need more support with responding to challenging behaviours, talk to your child’s case worker about holding a care team meeting to discuss your needs. There are therapeutic supports available to you and your child, and the child’s case worker will be able to assist you to access these.
What is trauma?
Trauma is an involuntary response to a threatening experience that feels outside of your control and overwhelms your capacity to cope. This is an extreme reaction and will have a long lasting impact on health and wellbeing. Even a single experience of trauma can cause lasting difficulties. Children and young people in care have often experienced multiple traumas over a lengthy period. They have also had these experiences at a time when their bodies and brains are growing which makes them uniquely vulnerable to long-term effects. The impact of early, repeated trauma and loss is known as ‘developmental trauma’.
An understanding of trauma and its effects will provide you with context for your child’s behaviour, which can be confusing, stressful and, at times, challenging. It will help you to understand that the behaviour is not about how your child feels about you or others, but a response to the difficult experiences they have had which continue to impact on how they view and interact with the world around them.
What signs might I see in daily life?
These resources will further assist in understanding trauma responses in children and young people:
Trauma responses by age
What can I do to help?
Look after your own wellbeing
Your wellbeing is integral to your role as a carer. There are many resources to assist you in maintaining your wellbeing and practicing good self-care. One of the most effective ways you can look after yourself is to use the support of your DCP and/or agency support worker and connect with other carers. You can find further information about this on the DCP Support and advocacy page for carers.
- Take time for yourself. The Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families has some helpful tips and strategies explaining why this is so important and how to manage this in your busy life.
- Building your community of care. Connecting with other carers is a great way to do this, and Connecting Foster and Kinship Carers SA can help you with this.
- Managing stress is an important element of self-care and you need to find what works for you. There are even phone apps like Smiling Mind with guided meditation and mindfulness techniques. There are also some great tips and additional resources on the Raising Children Network.
Identifying and preventing burn out is key to your wellbeing and there are some great resources on avoiding burnout. If you feel very stressed and need urgent help or advice, call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636.
Provide culturally informed care - Aboriginal children
Connection to family, culture, community and Country is crucial to the health, wellbeing and healing of Aboriginal children in care. It is important to be aware that when Aboriginal children experience trauma this may include impacts of inter-generational trauma within their family and community. A child needs support and motivation from their carer, family and community to start and continue their journey of healing. At the core of healing for Aboriginal children is strengthening their bonds to, and where necessary re-connecting them to, Aboriginal people and culture.
SNAICC - Supporting Carers to Care for Our Children have excellent resources that can support carers to understand trauma and provides advice on key issues for Aboriginal children and young people in care.
SNAICC also have resources to help carers with looking after themselves.
Children and young people who have experienced trauma need safety and stability in order to develop and flourish. It is important to know that safety is a relational experience: that means it is something that happens between two people. Carers play a crucial role by creating repeated experiences of safety within their everyday interactions with children. For example, prioritising safety can include:
- Notice and meet your child’s physical needs quickly and assertively.
- Notice when your child has a change of state (hungry, tired, hot, cold), explain what is happening to them, and offer a solution.
- Accept and respect your child’s bodily limits whenever possible (e.g., not wanting to have a hug, not liking certain foods or textures, not wanting to wear shoes around the house).
- Make home life as predictable as possible.
- Explain what is going to happen next and provide some transition time (in ten minutes it will be time wash your hands and then sit down for dinner).
- Acknowledge that it’s hard when the routine has to change.
- Be physically and psychologically present for your child. Set aside at least a few minutes every day when you put down your other worries and demands and just be with them for a while.
- Be aware of your non-verbal communication (posture, facial expression, tone of voice) as your child will notice these much more than the words you are saying.
- Say positive things about your child, your relationship, and the experiences you have together out loud (I’m happy to see you, it’s nice sitting here with you, I was thinking about you earlier when I saw….,I like it when you tell me about what happened at school; your joke really made me laugh etc.) Here is a great infographic with 25 ways to encourage.
- Avoid jokes or playfulness that rely on mocking, teasing, or sarcasm.
- Acknowledge any negative feelings you might have and explain that they don’t threaten your relationship. For example: "Sorry if I seemed angry just then. I was frustrated that [chore] wasn’t done. But I want you to know that doesn’t change how I feel about you. I love you and I believe that you’re doing the best that you can" OR "I might seem a bit on edge today. I’m nervous about something that’s going on at work. I want you to know that this isn’t your fault and it doesn’t change how I feel about you. We’re good.”
- Engage your child using playfulness, acceptance, curiosity, and empathy. This is a great explanation of what is meant by PACE.
Support emotional and social development
Children who have experienced trauma also experience normal challenges that all children face as they develop socially and emotionally. It is important that you and other caregivers provide support while your child is developing so they can learn to manage their own emotions. This includes guiding the child and encouraging positive behaviours, which will help them learn appropriate ways to behave. Times of significant development, like adolescence, often present new challenges when previously the child’s behaviour had been more settled.
Respond to challenging behaviour effectively and compassionately
Children or young person who experience developmental trauma can demonstrate behaviours that are confronting and distressing for carers to manage. Times of stress and developmental changes can trigger these behaviours. Some of these behaviours may emerge many years later as the child progresses through developmental stages.
These behaviours are often the ‘tip of the iceberg’, signalling emotions or needs that drive the behaviour from underneath. These fact sheets can help caregivers understand why these behaviours are happening and provide practical strategies for how to work with them:
- Building relationships (PDF, 2.0 MB)
- Shame (PDF, 2.0 MB)
- Use of consequences (PDF, 2.0 MB)
- Physical touch (PDF, 2.0 MB)
- Aggression (PDF, 2.0 MB)
- Problem sexual behaviour (PDF, 2.0 MB)
- Self-harm (PDF, 2.0 MB)
- Lying (PDF, 2.0 MB)
- Stealing (PDF, 2.0 MB)
- Hoarding and gorging (PDF, 2.0 MB)
- Fire lighting (PDF, 2.0 MB)
- Drugs and alcohol (PDF, 2.0 MB)
- Bedtime routines (PDF, 2.0 MB)