Haunted House Feelings
It’s the scary season. Haunted houses and spooky events abound. People pay money to be frightened. If you are one of those people, you enter that creepy house knowing that you are going to scream, jump, and be scared out of your wits. Even though you know some sort of creature is going to jump out in front of you, the exact appearance, location and timing of the creepy being are unknown. The result is that you will yell in terror and your heart will race when you see it. You are purposefully walking into a location that you know – in your head – is going to scare you, and yet your body still responds in fear.
Mr. Arnold Valdez of DePelchin Children’s Center gives us this is a helpful analogy when trying to understand the behaviors of a child with a history of trauma. Children who are in foster or adoptive families are in those families because of abuse, neglect and trauma. Dr. Gabor Mate says this: “Trauma is when there is a loss of feeling and there is a reduced flexibility in responding to the world.” Children with these hard histories are in new environments that can be startling, scary, and unsettling. The new people can feel creepy and the new house can feel haunted. As a result, kiddos walk around on high alert, ready to defend themselves against the next scary thing they will encounter. Meanwhile, the adults caring for foster and adopted children do not perceive their home as haunted at all. They know that the children are in a safe place. The challenging behaviors of children that are a result of being in survival mode is baffling to the adults in their lives.
To bridge this gap in understanding, it is essential for foster, adoptive and relative parents to understand the difference between safety and felt safety. The physical well-being of a child is of utmost importance. That seems to go without saying. But from a child’s perspective, felt safety is just as important. Until a child feels safe, she will not behave like someone who is in a safe and secure place. Instead, she will be on high alert, ready to defend herself at any moment for the frightening things that she may or may not encounter.
Being in a state of hypervigilance is not a conscious choice that a foster or adopted child makes. Rather, it begins in the region of the brain called the amygdala, which generates three possible responses to fear: fight, flight or freeze. Stress hormones are released that cause humans to respond to fear by fighting, fleeing, or freezing. Children with hard histories walk around in a chronic state of fear. As Dr. Karyn Purvis said, “Chronic fear is like a schoolyard bully that scares a child into behaving poorly. Caregivers and parents might easily confuse fear-based outbursts with willful disobedience, but they are not the same thing at all.”
In addition to living in a state of fight, flight or freeze, children with trauma histories have an altered brain chemistry, the conscience is often suppressed, they have limited or no access to the area of their brains where they can actually think, and they are unable to ask for or receive care.
So what are caregivers of hyper-vigilant, chronic-fear children to do? Is there any hope for change?
The brain – at any age – is plastic. This means that the brains of children can heal from past wounds. Felt safety is one of the first steps on that road to healing. To establish felt safety for foster and adopted children, parents should:
- Be a detective. Parents need to gather as much information about a child’s history as possible to determine what in the home could send a child into that fear response state. For example, if a child has a history of abuse behind locked doors at night, parents need to be aware of keeping doors open during bedtime. Often, parents are given little to no information about a child’s history. If this is the case, caregivers should keep track of a child’s patterns of fight, flight or freeze. When a challenging behavior can be tied to the same situation, parents can be assured that history is causing a negative reaction.
- Lower expectations. Children from hard places will have a lower tolerance for stress, anxiety and unforeseen circumstances. They should not be compared to other children their age who have not experienced trauma. Foster, adoptive and relative caregivers should give lots of warning before transitioning from one activity to the next. Children from trauma might need more help with getting ready for the day, with homework, with going to bed, and with schedules for the next day. Keeping expectations low will help establish felt safety.
- Food, water and exercise. We can’t stress enough how important it is to make sure children from trauma have enough exercise, protein-rich foods, and hydration. Without those three elements, children in a state of chronic fear won’t get to a place of felt safety. Find ways to incorporate physical movement together throughout the day. A walk or throwing the ball together is a fantastic way to transition from getting off the bus to homework time. Snacks every two hours and an unlimited supply of water will help children with adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) to get to the feeling of safety.
Imagine living in a state of haunted-house-like fear – all the time. That’s what our children from trauma feel like when they are living in new families. This concept can be confusing to caregivers. What’s even more confusing is what to do about it.
At Chosen, we help parents every day figure out how to establish felt safety for the specific children in their homes. If you would like assistance moving your child out of a state of fear so that he or she can get on a road of healing, Call us today at 210-582-6451. We are here to help!