Supporting traumatized birth parents

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 foster parents toward reunification with their children.

National Child Trauma Network

Even if you don’t know a parent’s personal history of trauma, your recognizing that trauma may have played a role in their lives will help you more effectively support and work with the entire family. Recognizing their trauma does not ignore or excuse the harm that has been done to children.

The following approaches can help you more effectively work with birth parents who have experienced trauma:

  • Understanding that parents’ anger, fear, resentment, or avoidance may be a reaction to their traumatic experiences—rather than to the child or to you—can help you not to take these reactions personally.
  • Remember that parents who have experienced trauma are not “bad,” and that blaming or judging them will more likely make the situation worse rather than motivating them to change.
  • You can 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 birth parents may be reacting to feelings of fear, inadequacy, or losing control; keep the conversation focused on the child to keep disagreements from becoming personal.
  • Model direct and honest communication when interacting with birth parents. 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.
  • You will want to establish clear boundaries and expectations with birth parents and caseworkers— particularly if you are a kinship provider who is both a foster parent and a relative of the birth parents. 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 birth parents 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 the night before, is coming down with a cold).
  • Check your voice tone, body language, and eye contact during stressful situations; if you stay calm, even-toned and neutral, 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.

See: National Child Trauma Network

Further Reading & Resources