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A-Z Teen Health Glossary

How to Help Your Foster Child With PTSD

Foster Child | Paradigm Austin

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD: If you hear the words or the acronym, your thoughts might immediately focus on a soldier who has been exposed to the horrors of war. While many veterans do suffer from PTSD, this is not a condition that only affects soldiers. Children and teenagers can also experience this type of mental illness, particularly foster children. If you are the parent of a foster child or otherwise work with teens that have been abused or exposed to violence, there are some things about post-traumatic stress disorder that you should know.

Why PTSD Is Prevalent Among Foster Children

According to SparkAction, approximately one quarter of now-grown foster children might be suffering from PTSD; in comparison, about 12 percent of Iraq war veterans have the condition. While it’s easy to understand why war veterans might have a hard time getting past the trauma they’ve witnessed, sometimes foster parents don’t realize the depth of hurt that kids “in the system” have been exposed to nor how it has impacted their young brains.

If a child was abandoned, abused or neglected by his or her parents, as is often the case with foster kids, these scars can persist throughout a lifetime. While a child or teen that experiences abuse or a traumatic event can usually turn to their family for support, an individual without familial support has a harder time getting through the experience, which can be a risk factor for PTSD.

Symptoms of PTSD in Teens

If you are the foster parent of a teenager, there are some signs that you should look for that might indicate a problem with post-traumatic stress disorder. These include a lack of trust, distancing themselves from you and others, nightmares, anger issues, severe anxiety, and physically hurting him- or herself. The teen might fear being left home alone or might be completely opposed to communicating with you.

Some of these behaviors can be par for the course when fostering a teen, of course. The key is to look for a pattern of behavior. An occasional angry outburst can be normal; constant anger is not. Similarly, an occasional nightmare is nothing to be concerned about, but if your foster teen is not sleeping well on a consistent basis or is afraid to go to sleep, this can indicate a problem that needs to be looked into.

What to Do If You Suspect PTSD

If you are concerned that the teen you’re fostering might have post-traumatic stress disorder or any other mental health, you’ll need to follow the procedure to secure mental health treatment that is recommended by your state. Depending on where you live, this can be a challenge. In some cases, you might be able to simply go to the child’s primary care physician for a referral; in others, pre-authorization might be needed. Call your social worker or the number on the health insurance card to find out what you need to do.

In addition to insurance concerns, guidelines on who can take the child to which types of doctors varies by state. For example, in one state, you might be able to go on your own, while in another, a case manager might need to accompany you (or just the child). If you are currently fostering, it’s best to find out in advance what the requirements are for your state or county, preferably before you need the information.

Types of PTSD Treatment

Post-traumatic stress disorder can be treated several ways. First, most teens with PTSD will receive cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT. This type of psychotherapy will help him or her learn way of coping with stressful events and triggers. If the teen is currently in crisis, psychological first aid or crisis counseling will be at the top of the priority list.

Another therapy, called eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), combines eye movements and cognitive therapy. This type of therapy has proven useful in some cases, but some studies have shown it to have the same effectiveness as CBT alone. Talk to your foster child’s mental health care practitioner about the benefits of EMDR and whether it’s right in this case.

Finally, some teens will need to take medication, either permanently or on a temporary basis. Talk to the prescribing doctor about the pros and cons of medication if you are the one who will be making the decision for the foster child.

How You Can Help Support Your Foster Child

It’s natural that you will want to support your foster child with PTSD, just like you would want to support your own child. First, it’s important to get him or her to any mental health appointments that are scheduled. Regular care is vital to treating mental health conditions, and that includes PTSD.

Secondly, try to keep the lines of communication open. Let your foster teen know that they can talk to you about what is on their mind. This can be difficult, because you might be new to his or her life or you might not have created a strong bond yet, so this can be a work in progress. Talk about the mundane things of daily life, and also ask questions about your teen’s interests and feelings. Be a good listener, and the rest may fall into place.

Finally, try to enforce a predictable routine for your foster child; knowing what is going to happen and when can give the teen a feeling of control, which is important when he or she might feel that other things are not within their control. Work in some time to practice relaxation exercises; you can do these as well, both to help you relax and to help build up the relationship between you and your teen. Ask his or her counselor for suggestions on good relaxation methods.

Supporting your foster child through PTSD can have a lasting impact on his or her life. Don’t be afraid to lean on not only their mental health care team, but also your case manager, social worker or others involved with your teen’s placement. Reach out for support of your own if you need it, and just take it day by day in your role as a foster parent.