Memories: Understanding Triggers in Foster Children

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It takes an incredibly special individual to open their heart and selflessly become a foster parent. The children placed in foster care undoubtedly experience so much emotional trauma in their lives that every change, big or small, can be overwhelming. With that being said, it takes patience, love, understanding, commitment and strength to provide the most beneficial environment for a foster child.

Challenging, yet rewarding, foster care is the perfect opportunity to give back and allow a child to have a solid foundation despite the obstacles they may face.

One article I found focuses on the ‘triggers’ foster children can experience and I thought it would be beneficial to share one man’s experience as a foster parent.

Oatmeal
Credit: Marty Figley

By John Ross

Have you ever smelled something and it brought back memories from your childhood? I opened a container of raw oatmeal and for some reason decided to smell it, and there was an instant memory from my childhood of me eating raw oatmeal. The memory was vivid, the taste of the raw oatmeal was fresh in my mouth; I even saw myself in the memory, reaching in the box and getting a handful and putting it in my mouth and eating it. This would have been over 50 years ago for me. The thing that caught my attention the most was; how “instantly” the memory came. It was very abrupt, without warning, it was just there, playing in full and very detailed. And all I did was smell the raw oatmeal.

This incident has helped me in a great way in understanding the behavior of a lot of children. This has also helped me to understand why some kids will not talk about certain things in therapy. Smelling the raw oatmeal was a trigger that opened a memory from my past. With children, because of their abuse, there can be many things that can trigger something from their past. Yelling at them can trigger a memory of an angry parent ready to strike them for something they did wrong or just because they are angry. Mentioning a certain word can trigger something. A smell in the house can trigger something.

Kids who have suffered abuse around Thanksgiving, Christmas; the smell of turkey or ham cooking can be a trigger for them of the abuse that came during that holiday. Phrases like, “I’ll deal with you later” can be a trigger to an abusive moment in their past. Since a vast number of kids end up in foster homes during holidays, you may find that holidays trigger a lot of bad memories, even if the child is feeling safe where they are. I had no control over what came to my mind when I sniffed that raw oatmeal. I was not thinking about my past when I sniffed it. The same with those kids, they have no control over their past coming to mind when something triggers it. They don’t have to be thinking about their past or their families. It is abrupt and without warning and their reactions may be just the same.

The raw oatmeal for me, brought happy memories, fond memories, and I wanted to taste the raw oatmeal right then and there because I knew I could, it was present, right there for the taking. For a child, something that triggers a bad memory, to them, it is present, again, right there, and can easily happen to them again. I immediately wanted to eat the raw oatmeal right then. For a bad memory being triggered for a child it is different. The memory appears to be imminent and the abuse could happen again right then without them wanting it to. The lack of control as to whether it will happen again right then is a big part of their fear. Their behavior will reflect how they are dealing with it on the inside.

The fact that just smelling the oatmeal produced an immediate memory, so sudden, had it been a bad memory, it more than likely would have hit me like a ghost suddenly appearing in front of me and yelling BOO! I more than likely would have had a negative reaction and would probably not have made oatmeal. In fact, I may decide to never eat oatmeal again. I may have a negative reaction every time oatmeal is served and instead of being able to verbalize why the sight of oatmeal bothers me, my behavior may display it, and if no one connects the oatmeal to my behavior, then my behavior may appear to be occasional willful disruptions at meal time. Since the trigger brought a memory of abuse so quickly, a child may react in sudden fright, heart pounding, they may jump, scream or run away because the memory was way too sudden for them. I have seen this happen to kids in my care many times. I have seen this happen to kids at school, many times. I have seen this happen to kids in department stores, playgrounds, you name it. You can see it in their face, their reactions, and their behavior.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Triggers

Children with PTSD may have lots of triggers. Because of this, when I get a foster child, I try my best to get as much information on their past as possible. With history, it helps us as foster parents to know what to try and avoid so we don’t set off triggers. I remember coming home once; going to my room and taking my belt off to change pants, and heard something break in my son’s room. I went to his room, with the belt still in my hand. When he saw the belt “in my hand,” the fear that went over his face almost broke my heart. Seeing the belt “in my hand” was the trigger, and the memory was so sudden in his head, his whole body felt its impact. It was like a ghost jumped out in front of him and said BOO! I never let that kid see me with a belt in my hands again. Anytime I was to wear a belt I always closed my door before putting it on. I knew firsthand Triggersthe impact that trigger had on him and how sudden the image jumped into his little head. It was clear that something bad happened involving a belt in the hands of someone.

I’ve learned about normal triggers around the home from these kids. I purchased very good night lights for their rooms. The dark is a trigger. I don’t close their doors at night when they go to sleep. A closed door is a trigger. If we go somewhere and drop someone off and we have to wait in the car, I allow them to take off their seatbelts while the car is parked. Strapped in a seatbelt is a trigger. They won’t go anywhere in my home alone even though they have lived here for close to 5 years, being alone upstairs or downstairs is a trigger. I don’t throw food in the trash in the presence of my son, that is a trigger also, as odd as it may be. It is OK for my son not to flush the toilet at night if he gets up to go to the bathroom, because the sound of the toilet is a trigger. A loud noise in the home is a trigger. Sudden loud noises in a movie, commercial, cartoon, etc. is a trigger. My daughter refuses to watch a movie unless she gets to sit next to me. It can be a movie as simple as Charlie Brown; something in it will frighten her for sure. Images that suddenly appear on the screen are triggers.

Knowing what is played back in their head for each trigger, helps a great deal. However, I have learned that knowing the incident doesn’t always mean I can help them get over it nor can I stop the image from coming again, as you can see with the raw oatmeal. That was over 50 years ago for me, yet, look how vivid that image was for me, how detailed it was and, how instantly and easily it could happen again. I would consider eating raw oatmeal appalling, but that didn’t stop the image and the desire to taste it. So knowing that some of those images cannot be erased, I have to help that child live a normal life until they can control how they allow those images to affect them. Getting this kind of information to a very good therapist will do those kids a world of good, regardless of whether the child will talk about it or not.

My daughter refuses to talk in therapy because talking about it is the biggest trigger of them all for her. So far, play therapy has been the only safe route with her. But, she will talk about any of it with me. Why? Because she sees me as her protector from her past? For some reason, both of my kids feel safe talking about anything with me because for them, I can control the triggers. Believe me you, if I knew what I was doing I’d write it down because I have no idea what I do to make them feel that safe. Both kids will discuss their past with me, but not with anyone else, not even their therapist. If the therapist triggers something during a session, their behavior is horrible for the rest of the day. It is very easy for me to know something was triggered in therapy when they come out of a session.

Suggestions On How to Become More Understanding

This happens to some kids when they go home for supervised or unsupervised visits. That’s where the abuse took place for some of them. So, it stands to reason their behavior would be poorly when they return to our homes. Why would anyone expect every child to come back acting wonderfully pleasant? Bio doesn’t have to always do something to upset the child. The place for some is a trigger in of itself. I hear foster parents complain a lot about how horrible the kids behave after they return from visits with bio. For some kids, I expect it.

They don’t need a trigger; they are visiting where the incidents took place. The example would be; if I had just eaten the raw oatmeal without smelling it first. I then would not have to smell the raw oatmeal to trigger the incident of me eating it in the past, I am already eating it. So the kids don’t need triggers from our homes to bring back the incidents that took place in their homes, when they are visiting the environment where the incidents were created. So when they’ve been in my home, away from their abusive environment, and only remember the abuse if they have a trigger in my home, then they go home for a visit, I don’t complain when they come back with poor behavior. I can report it, and do, but not as a complaint.

I look at their bio visits as a fresh coat of paint on the walls of their emotions. The smell will be there for a while after the visit, but it will soon go away. Only when they smell fresh paint again (the trigger) will they remember the incidents that got them into foster care in the first place. Just an example with the paint.

When we understand “how” triggers affect our kids, we are in a better position to either help them, or seek out the best support for them. All of the triggers that I have learned that are for certain; I pass what is appropriate along to the school. I pass all of it along to the therapist. I include them in my weekly/monthly reports to the social worker/attorney. Keeping everyone on the same page helps a great deal.

These are just my thoughts from the perspective of a foster parent. I am not a therapist nor psychologist, so I don’t impart this as having a degree in this field. The only degree I have is life itself. It is only factual in that I myself experienced it and dealt with it here and there and learned something from it that has helped me a great deal in helping the kids that come through my home.

John Ross is a fellow foster parent who enjoys sharing advice with others who are along this journey.

*National Foster Parent Association: Triggers – Understanding From a Child’s Perspective.

Thoughts, comments, questions? Please email me, Jennkaysen@gmail.com

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