Recognizing Trauma in Foster Children

The majority of children in foster care have experienced trauma due to exposure to abuse, neglect, and abandonment.  Being in foster care itself, may further traumatize children as they are removed from family, school, and their community, which contributes to the loss of relationships and bonds. The effects of trauma are cumulative and if children are chronically exposed to trauma, the risk of developing symptoms increases. 

It is important for child welfare professionals to understand trauma-informed practice and children’s responses to trauma.  Youth need adults who can help them make sense of their trauma histories and the impact on child functioning in order to be able to help promote healing.  Addressing the underlying trauma is key for adults to be able to support youth in their journey of healthy development, healing and building resilience. Trauma-informed services involve the integration of understanding, commitment, and practices organized around the goal of addressing the trauma-based needs of children.  It is critical that youth in foster care have adults who understand trauma and behavior reactions related to that trauma. 

Children’s Reaction to Trauma


  • Guilt

  • Depression

  • Confusion

  • Emotional numbing

  • Avoidance of stimuli

  • Flashbacks/nightmares

  • Withdrawal/isolation

  • Somatic complaints

  • Sleep disturbances

  • Academic decline

  • Suicidal thoughts

  • Revenge fantasies


  • Substance abuse

  • Anti-social behavior

  • Aggressive responses

  • Interpersonal conflicts

  • School refusal/avoidance

Trauma Related Conditions

·          Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

·          Dissociative identity disorder

·          Substance abuse disorder

·          Depression

·          Anxiety/panic disorder

·          Medical illness/somatization disorders

·          Eating disorders

·          Bipolar disorder

·          Borderline personality disorder

·          Self harm

The need to recognize the different types of reactions along with the related conditions can give the trauma-informed child welfare professional the ability to assess children’s needs for specific interventions that can promote healing and improve outcomes for this vulnerable population.  The lack of understanding can lead to overuse of psychotropic medications, inaccurate labeling in schools, placement disruptions, and ineffective services that can further traumatize youth.  Therefore, it is essential to understand the whole child, which involves understanding the child in the context of family, social, and community and provide support and guidance.