Vol. 18, No. 1 • November 2013

Responding to Trauma Triggers

by Mark Maxwell

In the last issue of Fostering Perspectives I introduced you to my son Tyler. (As a reminder, this is not his real name; to protect privacy I also change some key details.) We adopted "Tyler" when he was 12; he's now 18.

Tyler's gifts to our family included an IEP (Individualized Educational Plans), PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), ODD (oppositional-defiant disorder), and RAD (reactive attachment disorder). I call these diagnoses and the behaviors they generate "gifts" because they've helped us comprehend the impact of child maltreatment and how important it is for foster and adoptive parents to understand about trauma and trauma triggers.

According to the National Center on Domestic Violence, Trauma and Mental Health, trauma triggers are reminders of past traumatizing events. They can be anything, even something apparently harmless.

For someone who's been terrorized by a partner or family member, simply encountering a person in authority can be a trigger. For a domestic violence survivor whose abuser made and enforced "rules" in the house, the very word "rules" might trigger a trauma reaction.

As parents it is important for us to identify, prevent, and respond appropriately to our children's trauma triggers. Failure to do this, according to the National Center for Family Homelessness, can negatively impact children's physical, emotional, academic, and cognitive development.

For Tyler, exposure to trauma triggers inspired drug-seeking behaviors. After he encountered a trigger he would create situations in our house that led to chaos and family blow-ups. This in turn sparked his drug-seeking behavior. In Tyler's mind, the family conflict justified his seeking out or stealing the resources he needed to get high. Sometimes he would even "cheek" his Adderall to sell to peers to get the money he needed to buy marijuana. (Cheeking: When one pretends to swallow medication, but actually hides the pills in the part of the mouth between the gum and cheek.)

As parents we can't shield children from all trauma triggers. But we can work to create safe environments free from media violence, chaos, and placement disruptions.

To do this, we must first understand what our children's specific trauma triggers are. In Tyler's case, we became detectives. We learned to pay attention, especially at times Tyler did not know we were present or watching him. When he attended an afterschool program, we partnered with the staff and asked them to look for patterns of behaviors, good and bad. We worked with his teachers, guidance counselors, and scouting leaders in an effort to learn how to parent our son.

For our children's sake, we parents must be flexible. For example, experience helped us see that we had to change our responses to Tyler's trigger-inspired behavior. We worked to remove ourselves from the daily circus that Tyler attempts to lead as ringmaster. This does not mean that we do not have real body/mind reactions, but we recognize that impulsive, irrational decisions by us can create greater harm to our entire family. We work to protect each other and our other children. Safety is priority one.

Parents should never hesitate to seek help from qualified mental health professionals, because children can face a number of other challenges (e.g., fetal alcohol syndrome) that may not be immediately obvious.

Parenting a child with a history of trauma isn't easy. My advice to parents is to continue to advocate, educate, take breaks, and build your support network.

Despite the challenges, it is worth it. After all, Tyler is our son. He's ours for life. We are his forever family.

Mark Maxwell is Vice President of Region 2 for NCFAPA. He has four children, three adopted from foster care with his life partner. Mark is a PhD candidate at Walden University.

To view references cited in this and other articles in this issue, click here.

~ Family and Children's Resource Program, UNC-CH School of Social Work ~