When I first started foster parenting more than 30 years ago, no one had heard of trauma-focused techniques.  Now, the phrase is everywhere.  In fact, it’s become so popular that it’s hard to know what the word “trauma” means these days.  The first step in parenting children who have suffered trauma is to know what we’re talking about.

What Do We Mean by Trauma?

The research into childhood trauma started with the groundbreaking study of adverse childhood experiences in the 1990s.  That ACE study included parental abandonment or divorce.  Since then, the research has broadened into other traumatic experiences.  When I started researching, I found many definitions of trauma.  The definition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5), the standard for diagnosing post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental illnesses, is exposure to “actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence” through direct experience, witnessing others in danger, or hearing about it happening to close family members or friends.  

That phrase obviously captures natural disasters, sexual abuse, and physical abuse, as well as most cases of domestic violence or community violence.  Studies underlying the standard also note that loss of a caregiver, through death, abandonment, or foster care “may be perceived as a serious threat to a child’s own safety and psychological/physical survival.”  Thus, if we are parenting foster children or step children who have lost access to their biological parents, we by definition are parenting children who have lived through a traumatic childhood event.

At the other end of the spectrum, I found a popular term, “traumatic stress,” that doesn’t seem to be based on any underlying studies or research.  It focuses on the child’s reactions — being exposed to a trauma and developing “reactions that persist and affect their daily lives after the events have ended.”  While that definition strikes an emotional chord, I instinctively resist definitions that don’t have at least some evidence-based support.  I’m especially suspicious of definitions that simply add to the confusion with subjective terms like “persist” and “affect.”  “Traumatic stress,” while it’s catchy and instinctively appealing, doesn't yet seem to be a diagnosable condition.

Nevertheless, we are parents, not mental health professionals making diagnoses.  From our perspective, what matters is the effects of childhood trauma on our kids and how they are reacting to those events.  In that sense, the definition that I’ve found most helpful is from a study dating back more than 40 years, defining “trauma” as a sudden event that “overwhelms a person’s ability to respond to it.”  That is exactly what I’ve seen — my kids have faced events or changes in their lives that overpowered their ability to make sense of and cope with what was happening.

This definition which includes not only a severe or violent event, such as childhood abuse, but an event that also overwhelms coping mechanisms has a major benefit for parents.  It helps us focus on what we can do to help our kids. The definition tells us that our job is to help them make sense of what has happened and help them find ways to cope with those events.  That sentence is much simpler than the reality of parenting kids who have suffered trauma, but the definition at least gives us a map for moving forward.

Why Is the Definition Important?

One question I often hear is why the definition matters.  I think it matters because if we accept any current definitions of early childhood trauma that include any event that upsets our children, then we end up trying to avoid ordinary stress.  That protection in turn deprives our children of the opportunity to learn important life skills.  In the words of one outstanding article on anxiety, “The everyday efforts we make to prevent kids’ distress—minimizing things that worry them or scare them, assisting with difficult tasks rather than letting them struggle —may not help them manage it in the long term.”  It's better for our kids' emotional health to face and overcome some adverse experiences.

In other words, we need to recognize that not every disappointment will overwhelm our child’s coping mechanisms.  A child who doesn’t get invited to a birthday party will be disappointed.  Our job is to help our child work through the inevitable emotional responses, not call the other child’s parents to insist on an invitation.  

Another reason it’s important to accurately define trauma is that ordinary negative experiences have relatively temporary negative effects.  We adults may remember not getting as many valentines as more popular girls in our class, but we dealt with it and it’s now just an interesting memory.  We learn that, in hindsight, it was a good thing we didn't get a job that was a bad fit for our skills.  Trauma, on the other hand, has a long-term impact that continues to overwhelm our ability to deal with ordinary life.

The analogy I use is a computer. Trauma is like a program that is working in the background, taking up all sorts of resources. What we see in the program at the front of the screen is slow, glitchy, and highly annoying. Trauma makes our children’s brains work the same way. Their subconscious is trying to resolve their trauma in the background.  What we see on the surface is a child who is slow, distracted, and often highly annoying. Until therapy, love, stability, and other protective factors can help their subconscious process the trauma, our kids just don’t have a lot of resources to devote to our house rules or social skills.  

A final reason that the definition matters is that different children react to trauma in different ways, and we need a good definition to be able to recognize it.  Not every potentially traumatic event will overwhelm a child.  Many children, for example, have or can find coping skills to navigate their parents’ divorce.  The situation is challenging, but not overwhelming.  

Other children, particularly young children, will seem to be doing fine for quite a while, and then suddenly start exhibiting symptoms of trauma. I haven’t found any research into this phenomenon, but people in child welfare know anecdotally that many children who have experienced trauma start showing their serious symptoms of childhood trauma right around puberty.  It’s as though the physical development of puberty not only brings about the ordinary behavioral changes in older children and teens, but opens the door to past trauma in a way that overwhelms a child's ability to function.

There is no defined path or timeline to trauma reactions, so we need to be able to define trauma in order to distinguish complex trauma responses from simple bad behavior.

Triggers Can Reactivate Trauma

Another difference between ordinary negative events and traumatic events is that the effects of trauma, particularly unresolved trauma, pop up when we least expect it.  That computer program that I described often forces itself to the front of our children’s brains, completely overwhelming whatever other program they (and we) are trying to use at that moment.  When this happens, our children are re-experiencing in the present moment the emotional trauma of their early experiences.  Those triggers can be hard for us to predict and our children to cope with because they seem so benign and random.  

One neuroscience study I ran across explains why this can happen.  It indicates that our brains interpret current events by accessing memories of prior happenings. Previous research has shown the replay effect in spatial navigation, but this study indicates that replay also underlies our ability to make sense of narratives. Furthermore, that brain function makes connections that don’t always follow any obvious patterns of logic.

The researchers in this study also found that the brain goes through this process on the fly. In other words, our children have little time for logical analysis of their emotions and trauma triggers.  They default to their “fight, flight, or freeze” response, and their prefrontal cortex hasn't kicked in yet.  We may be the only ones with the ability to recognize it when it happens.  It’s not a conscious reflex that we can deal with logically.  The response is buried deep in the back of a child’s brain, and our words can only reach different brain pathways.  We have to take a deep breath in the moment, keep our child safe until the logic centers re-engage, and then help them process what happened.



In future posts, I’ll discuss some common signs of trauma and how we can help our children process their different types of experiences.  For now, we should concentrate on understanding exactly what trauma is and how it differs from ordinary life stress and setbacks.  The two distinguishing characteristics seem to be (1) a serious threat to a child’s well-being, and (2) it has the effect of overwhelming a child’s normal coping mechanism.   That definition is key to knowing how to help our children develop resilience and move past traumatic events.


Debbie Ausburn

Helping foster parents and stepparents learn how to be the person who is not supposed to be there.