A foster carers introduction to the impact of intergenerational trauma and how quality foster has the power to change the trajectory of future generations
Sarah Anderson, FosterWiki Founder
Introduction to Intergenerational Trauma
Many of you as foster carers will see the living embodiment of intergenerational trauma in the children and young people you care for on a daily basis.
Understanding its origins, effects, and finding ways to mitigate it’s impact is crucial for our looked after children, it can also help them heal and lessen trauma passed onto future generations.
The lasting effects of intergenerational trauma can include depression, anxiety PTSD and a lot more, many find it hard to escape the cycle.
However this is one of the positive outcomes of foster care, it’s potential to support and heal those suffering from intergenerational trauma.
What is Intergenerational Trauma?
There is no specific diagnosis of intergenerational trauma, however the phenomenon is well accepted among experts.
Intergenerational trauma refers to the transmission or passing down of trauma from one generation to the next, impacting the mental, emotional, and sometimes physical well-being of children, young people, their families and if it continues, generations to come.
It can have wider causes, such as historical events like wars, genocide, colonisation, which can leave lasting scars, affecting subsequent generations, you may find this in fostering refugees or asylum seekers.
It is also believed that trauma can be transmitted across generations through genetic changes known as epigenetic change, this means behaviours and environment can cause changes that affect the way your genes work.
Research indicates that traumatic experiences can leave a lasting impact on DNA, influencing subsequent generations. Despite DNA not storing memories like the mind, it can carry the effects of trauma. This generational transmission is likened to a tree retaining the mark of an axe cut as it grows.
Beyond genetics, the legacy of trauma may extend culturally, as unhealthy behaviours learned from family members over time can be passed down through imitation and teaching to subsequent generations.
With children in care it is likely to be from adverse childhood experiences such as neglect, abuse, domestic violence, poverty, discrimination, sexual abuse, racism, drugs or alcohol abuse and untreated mental health, unresolved family dysfunction, inherited pain unresolved for generations throughout the family.
In foster care it can also manifest in a loss of cultural practices, suppression of identity or heritage, all can contribute to intergenerational trauma.
Andy D, Foster Carer
How can intergenerational trauma affect children and young people in care?
By the very nature of being in care and separated from birth family, foster children suffer from trauma, and that is before we add all the things they have suffered that bought them into care.
Children and young people in care can also be part of a bigger picture of trauma running through generation after generation.
Intergenerational trauma can affect looked after children and their families in very different ways, each circumstance is unique.
Here are some of the effects of intergenerational trauma:
- Mental Health – depression, anxiety, PTSD, self harm, low self esteem, suicidal ideation.
- Behaviour – unhelpful coping mechanisms, self harm, drugs or alcohol, behaviour that challenges caregivers and educators.
- Risk factors – More susceptible to grooming, trafficking, child sexual exploitation, more frequent missing episodes.
- Social impact – Difficulty forming friendships, connections with others and sustaining relationships.
- Many children suffering from intergenerational trauma will be in survival mode.
- Children may mask, many will feel shame, have negative feelings and feel isolated.
- Low school attendance or an ability to focus when at school.
- Intergenerational trauma in preverbal children can manifest through non-verbal cues and behaviours. This might include disruptions in attachment, difficulties regulating emotions, sleep disturbances, excessive clinginess, or withdrawal.
How can we help as foster carers?
Fundamental to supporting children with intergenerational trauma is an education in trauma informed care.
- Understanding a child’s trauma gives you a better understanding of them and an increased chance of them breaking the cycle of intergenerational trauma.
- Trauma informed education will enable you to self and co-regulate so your child can, with your help, learn to do the same, you can provide them with empathy in a non-judgemental and authentic environment to explore their feelings and relationships with all those around them in a safe holding space.
- Never stop learning, continually develop your knowledge of trauma, it’s effects and how to mitigate it.TOP TIP: Be as trauma informed as you can be, ask for good quality education from your fostering services on trauma informed care.
- Create a safe space and resist the need to ‘fix’ or remove or diminish pain, acknowledge the validity of the trauma and where it comes from and create a holding space. Validate the child’s emotions, acknowledging their feelings as legitimate. This helps them process their experiences and builds trust in their ability to express themselves.
- Therapeutic interventions – Work with yours and the child/young person’s social worker to access counselling or therapy, usually through the NHS Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS).
- Cultural Connection – It is vital we help connect children to their cultural roots and heritage. This can provide a sense of identity and belonging, contributing to healing from intergenerational trauma.
- Contact/Family time – Understanding trauma through the lens of generations helps us in positively promoting and supporting contact (where appropriate) with parents, siblings and extend family.
“I always say our looked after children’s parents were often once these children themselves, in the same cycle generation after generation, often through lack of support or help. That’s why I never blame birth parents, what ever has happened, and why I help our young people understand it’s not their fault either.
It’s amazing how our young people have responded to understanding the generational trauma in their families and how much it has helped their emotional health and sense of self. Many of our foster children now have families of their own and have broken that generational cycle, it’s wonderful to see.”
Sarah Anderson, Foster Carer, Founder FosterWiki“When you understand intergenerational trauma it makes it so much easier to have a good (professional) relationship with birth parents and a different outlook on contact/family time, understanding our role in supporting that family time & contact is crucial. As crucial as maintaining (where appropriate) children’s bonds with their parents, siblings and extended family. Intergenerational trauma doesn’t mean we stop them seeing family, it means we help them understand through providing a secure and safe base so they can start to see things differently themselves.”
JH, Foster Carer
- Create a Safe Environment – This is something foster carer can provide, sometimes for the first time in a child’s life, a nurturing loving environment where they feel safe and secure. This helps counteract the effects of intergenerational trauma and promotes emotional well-being.
- Open Communication – Create a space where children feel comfortable expressing their thoughts and feelings without fear of judgment.
- Coping Mechanisms – Whilst accessing therapy (through the child’s social worker) is essential we can also help children with healthy coping mechanisms. This could include mindfulness, breathing exercises, being out in nature, creative outlets like art, music, sports, clubs, writing journals and more, can help them manage stress and emotions.
- Help children and young people understand – This is of course age appropriate but you can help and empower children and young people through life story work and family history. Age appropriate discussions can help them understand.
- Help promote relationships and connections – Encourage positive relationships with peers and family members. Healthy connections contribute to a supportive social network, which is crucial for overcoming the effects of trauma. Where it feels right for the child there are clubs of all sorts to help the child interact with others and build friendship groups.
- Be a role model – So often children and young people in foster care benefit from the simple modelling of a more secure family model and safe stable background.
“When J sent us a text after she’d left and had her first baby saying “you all showed me what a family could be like, what a mum and dad felt like, you showed me how to do it differently and that’s exactly what I’m going to do for my baby and my family” it really sunk in how we had changed her life, from the one everyone kept telling her she was going to have when she was not settling at school and going missing, to this, settled with a lovely partner and new baby.
I’m happy to say she now has 2 children and not a social worker in sight, think that must be a first in her family, well certainly for a few generations anyway! So so proud of her, it wasn’t easy.”
ST, Foster carer
- Preverbal children will need reassurance, attachment, love, nurture, attention, play and to feel safe and secure.
- Observing changes in a child’s play patterns and interactions can also provide insights into how intergenerational trauma is affecting their early development.
The key to working with intergenerational trauma as a foster carer is firstly education, a great grounding in trauma informed care.
As with all things in our role is to collaborate with the teams around us, working to care plans and understanding our role is essential.
Understanding how trauma is passed through generations can be so helpful to our fostering on so many levels, when we understand it helps us too, we are less perplexed, confused or frustrated and we see emotional expressions and behaviour through a different lens.
There is nothing more rewarding in our role than to change the trajectory or a child’s or young person’s future, to help them release from toxic family cycles, to help them move forward in their lives without this burden, and without carrying it into future generations.
The National Foster Carer’s Qualifications (NFCQ)
The NFCQ Foundation Qualification has two trauma informed modules written by Dr Mine Conkbayir, one of the UK’s leading specialists in neuroscience. An award-winning author, lecturer, trainer and researcher, she has worked in early childhood education and care, for over twenty years.
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