Helping Young People in Foster Care Heal From Trauma and Build Resilience

Posted May 17, 2018
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Young people from foster care need help from adults to heal from trauma.

Grow­ing up is hard to do, and the peri­od from ado­les­cence to ear­ly adult­hood can be tumul­tuous even under the best cir­cum­stances. For young peo­ple whose lives have been dis­rupt­ed by fos­ter care, the chal­lenges of becom­ing an adult are ampli­fied. The con­di­tions that have led them to fos­ter care — and being in fos­ter care — often cause lin­ger­ing trauma.

To help care­givers and child wel­fare pro­fes­sion­als sup­port young peo­ple in mov­ing from trau­ma to resilience, the Jim Casey Youth Oppor­tu­ni­ties Ini­tia­tive has pro­duced a new print­able hand­out called Heal­ing Comes First. The doc­u­ment is part of a five-seg­ment Brain Frames series that uti­lizes ado­les­cent brain sci­ence to help young peo­ple in fos­ter care live healthy lives.

Research tells us that, when young peo­ple live with chron­ic stress and fre­quent tran­si­tions, their devel­op­ing brains can shift into sur­vival mode, con­stant­ly scan­ning the envi­ron­ment for poten­tial loss­es, rejec­tion or harm. Liv­ing in a per­pet­u­al sur­vival state can com­pro­mise the devel­op­ment of more com­plex brain func­tions — such as impulse con­trol and emo­tion­al reg­u­la­tion — that are key to nav­i­gat­ing adulthood.

By devel­op­ing resilience, young peo­ple are able to rec­og­nize trau­ma, func­tion nor­mal­ly in the face of risk, and ulti­mate­ly over­come dif­fi­cult con­di­tions that are often beyond their con­trol. As the Jim Casey Youth Oppor­tu­ni­ties Initiative’s com­pre­hen­sive report, The Road to Adult­hood, points out, resilience is crit­i­cal for emerg­ing adults who have been involved in the child wel­fare system.

For­tu­nate­ly, young peo­ple have remark­able neur­al plas­tic­i­ty, accord­ing to research. Their devel­op­ing brains can heal from — or be hurt by — every inter­ac­tion. Heal­ing Comes First lever­ages this knowl­edge to iden­ti­fy sam­ple activ­i­ties and con­ver­sa­tions as well as build­ing blocks that can help car­ing adults nur­ture resilience in young peo­ple. The four build­ing blocks described in the hand­out are:

  1. Val­i­da­tion. Acknowl­edge and respect young people’s feel­ings and experiences.
  2. Self-care. Encour­age young peo­ple to pri­or­i­tize their phys­i­cal and men­tal health.
  3. Rein­force­ment. Reas­sure young peo­ple that they are not defined or con­fined by their expe­ri­ences in fos­ter care.
  4. Mind­ful­ness. Pro­mote men­tal health habits and prac­tices that young peo­ple can use to remain present, aware and proac­tive in their lives.

Heal­ing Comes First also explains how car­ing adults can help young peo­ple see them­selves as agents of change in the con­text of the larg­er human fam­i­ly and experience.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach that leads to heal­ing and growth from trau­ma,” says San­dra Gas­ca-Gon­za­lez, direc­tor of the Jim Casey Youth Oppor­tu­ni­ties Ini­tia­tive. A young per­son might ben­e­fit from ther­a­py, or art­mak­ing, or yoga. But we know for cer­tain that — regard­less of the path they take toward self-expres­sion and mind­ful­ness — sta­ble rela­tion­ships with car­ing adults are the most effec­tive way to build resilience. These con­nec­tions are the door that leads to healthy well-being.”

Go to the handout

Down­load the Brain Frames series

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