Vol. 18, No. 1 • November 2013

Working with Birth Parents Who Have Trauma Histories

From the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, 2011

Just as children in foster care have lived through trauma, many of their parents have histories of childhood or adult trauma: physical abuse, sexual abuse, domestic violence, serious accidents, and community violence--along with the experience of having their children placed in foster care. These experiences, if left unaddressed, can continue to impact individuals well into adulthood. Parents' past or present trauma can make it difficult for them to work effectively with case workers and resource parents toward reunification with their children.

Even if you don't know a parent's personal history of trauma, recognizing that trauma may have played a role in their lives will help you more effectively support and work with the entire family.

How Trauma May Affect Birth Parents
As a result of past traumatic experiences, birth parents may:

  • Have difficulty keeping themselves and their children safe and healthy. Some are overprotective, while others may not recognize real dangers that can threaten their children.
  • Resort to coping in unhealthy ways, such as using drugs or alcohol.
  • React more strongly and/or negatively to things--or have a harder time understanding and/or controlling their emotions, behavior and/or words.
  • Be more susceptible to further trauma, such as domestic violence.
  • Have an invading sense of loss of control, particularly during and/or directly following their child's removal from home. Often parents will re-experience this during case planning processes, visitation, court hearings, or when they or their child receive services.
  • Find it difficult to trust others, especially people in positions of power--caseworkers, judges, and even resource parents.
  • Be more vulnerable to trauma reminders--or triggers--when a sound, smell, or feeling brings back the experience of the trauma all over again. Reminders may cause parents to overreact to situations that others would not find difficult. Situations that trigger parents can include: children's behavior during visits, case conferences and court hearings, and/or interactions with resource parents or other authority figures.
  • Become numb or shut down--even when interacting with their child--or misread your words or intentions. These difficulties can indicate the presence of trauma reminders.
  • Mistrust or be jealous of you as the resource parent. They may second guess your role as caregiver or question your discipline or caretaking choices.

Working with Birth Parents
A good relationship between birth parents and resource parents promotes child safety, permanence, and well-being. While not easy to do, positive interactions between you and the birth parents can create a sense of safety, security, and support for the children in your care. Particularly in stressful situations, understanding how a history of trauma can impact birth parents can increase your likelihood of success.

Neither birth parents nor resource parents can accomplish their work effectively without the help of the other. Both caregivers bring a unique set of experiences, skills, and knowledge to the process of caring for the child. The following approaches can help you more effectively work with birth parents who have experienced trauma:

  • Don't take difficult reactions personally. Understand that parents' anger, fear, resentment, or avoidance may be a reaction to their traumatic experiences--rather than to the child or to you.
  • Remember that parents who have experienced trauma are not "bad." Blaming or judging them will likely make the situation worse rather than motivating them to change.
  • Show birth parents that you genuinely care by complimenting their efforts to keep their child safe. Support them in their role as parents by asking for suggestions on how to care for their child. When differences of opinion in parenting beliefs and practices arise, understand that they may be reacting to feelings of fear, inadequacy, or losing control. Focus on the child to keep disagreements from becoming personal.
  • Model direct and honest communication. Share your observations (instead of opinions) when presenting information that may be hard to handle. Similarly, be aware of and openly acknowledge your own mistakes.
  • Establish clear boundaries and expectations with birth parents and caseworkers. Be consistent and, when you make a commitment, follow it through. Work hard to come to agreement, rather than staying stuck on being "right" or trying to "win."
  • Remember that visits, court hearings, and case conferences are difficult for birth parents and children. Work with them to set a routine for these encounters: decide together how to handle meetings, say goodbye, schedule phone contacts, and so forth. Tell birth parents and caseworkers about any event that might affect the quality of the meeting (e.g., the child had a tough day at school, didn't sleep well, etc.).
  • Stay calm, even-toned and neutral during stressful situations-- you'll be less likely to generate arguments. If not a kinship provider, always ask the birth parent how they would like to be addressed--this conveys respect.
  • Remember that things will not always go smoothly, even if you are trying as hard as you can. Work towards mutual trust, while keeping in mind that it may take some time.

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 ~