Thursday, September 12, 2013

Triggers -- Understanding from a Foster Child's Perspective Part 2

Credit: Graphic Nature Stickers

By John Ross
Reprinted with permission

In Part 1 of this series, John recounted how opening oatmeal triggered a 50-years-old memory for him, and how memories affect how children in care behave. 

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.

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 the 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.

John Ross is a fellow foster parent who enjoys sharing advice with others who are along this journey. Stay tuned for Part 3 of John's great article on understanding triggers from a foster child's perspective...


  1. This is really good to know as a knew foster parent sometimes you're like,"What the?" This makes sense, to be more sensitive to triggers that may bring him back to a bad place.

  2. Maybe, also, your kids recognize you as someone who understands triggers and you have experienced them yourself. That definitely creates camaraderie and trust between me and people I meet--if that person isn't the type to push buttons on purpose.