Kris’ Corner – Foster Care and PTSD

September 29, 2022

So let’s take a few minutes and discuss Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Not really a “light” topic, so maybe you should sit down for this one.

You may have seen commercials on TV to help bring awareness and understanding to PTSD, as well as to encourage current or former military veterans to seek help for this often-debilitating condition. As you may be familiar from said ads (or your own personal experience), the symptoms are often given as such (although this is not an all-encompassing list): flashbacks, jittery nerves, withdrawn or depressed behavior, chemical dependency, an ongoing experience of negative feelings, anger, aggression, etc.

You may have heard about PTSD in this setting (or others) but never thought about how it enters into the realm of foster care. But here’s a staggering fact for your consideration: children and teens with foster care experience are diagnosed with PTSD at twice the rate of U.S. veterans.

Re-read that if you must, because it should not be easily glossed over.

So now that you know WHO it affects, let’s discuss a little about what it is and why it pertains to your foster care journey.

PTSD is a mental health condition that affects survivors of life-threatening (or perceived life-threatening) events. This clearly makes sense when discussing military veterans. So how does it play in to the lives of children removed from their biological families? For them it may not be a singular occurrence (although definitely can be), but it may be due to exposure to prolonged and/or severe life-threatening circumstances.

PTSD is an over-arching term to describe four different kinds of symptoms; they can occur individually or combined, depending on the individual and his unique situation.

  1. Reliving/re-experiencing (this is often what we think of as “flashbacks” in which the individual feels like he is actually experiencing the traumatic event.)
  2. Avoidance (this is when the individual works hard to NOT remember the event and thereby cannot receive help because it is constantly repressed.)
  3. Continual Negative Feelings and Beliefs (this is how an individual suffering from PTSD feels about himself; it can include feelings of guilt, shame, anger, resentment, or might be a move away from interests that once brought enjoyment. These can also include numbness, inability to experience happiness, or an overall sense that the world is untrustworthy.)
  4. Hypersensitivity/Hyperarousal (this means the individual is hypervigilant because he are constantly on the lookout for danger; it can translate into trouble sleeping, relaxing or having focus.)

So how does PTSD present in children (which is the real thing you probably want to know from this post!)? Kids with PTSD often have similar symptoms to adults, but it plays out differently based on age (of course these are approximations because children with severe trauma can also be emotionally delayed).

Under 7 years old: they will often have trouble with sleep and do not want to be alone. Please understand this is not “being clingy” but is a symptom of PTSD. They might act out their trauma through play.

School-age (7-11): they may continue to act out through play, but also tell stories or draw pictures to help process their trauma. Focus and attention to schoolwork might be a factor, and relationships (specifically with friends) might struggle. Nightmares or terrors might be prevalent as well.

Pre-Teen and Teenagers (12-18): they may have symptoms most like those of adults. This could include withdrawal from things they previously enjoyed, depression, anxiety, running away or some type of addiction.

Related to suffering with PTSD, many foster or former foster youth fail to complete high school, let alone attend secondary education of any kind. They are more likely to struggle with addictions, unemployment and homelessness. But increasing awareness about PTSD in foster children, as well as the additional struggles they face related to PTSD, can help us help them face these obstacles and come to a place of stability, health and healing.