Rachel Ashcraft, an occupational therapist with Child Play Therapy in Birmingham, specializes in childhood trauma triggers.
Published: May 31, 2018
By: Stephanie Rodda
Author Website: Click to Visit
Have you ever smelled a particular scent, tasted a certain food or heard a special song and instantaneously been reminded of an important event from your childhood? It is commonly understood that there are triggers that connect us to memories.
I was very close to my maternal grandmother and although she has been gone many years, I can still smell the fragrance of a certain hand lotion and feel comforted as I think of her. It isn’t the aroma that holds such magical powers; it is the association that it holds for me to my grandma. My memories of her are sweet and they are precious to me.
But what if the memories are not so dear? What about the triggers for trauma that may have been experienced during childhood?
Melinda (name changed), who is now a mother, RN and grandmother, was once a frightened child, wondering when her next abuse would come. She shared with me some of her personal experiences of childhood trauma. “Often, I didn’t understand what I had done wrong.” The pain is still clearly real as she recounts the abuse, which was physical, sexual and emotional, that she faced as a young girl. Although she is now emotionally healthy, physically safe and professionally successful, the impact of those traumatic times is still present. Anxiety over making a wrong decision or of failing her own children are two examples as well as major trust issues that had to be overcome. Melinda’s faith has allowed her to recover and heal from those dark days and yet, there are still triggers.
“To this day if I hear the song that was playing during the first episode of sexual abuse, I feel really sick and my eyes water and I have an overwhelming urge to run. Fortunately, it’s a really old song that doesn’t get played much.”
Rachel Ashcraft, an occupational therapist with Child Play Therapy in Birmingham, specializes in childhood trauma triggers. She explains that triggers can also lead to emotional responses rather than a flashback. Perhaps, hearing a heated argument between adults might cause feelings of anxiety. Maybe feeling anxious triggers an impulse to run and hide. Overwhelming guilt or sadness from feeling happy can occur.
Ashcraft and her husband are foster parents and actively advocate for children in foster care. Her non-profit organization, Foster the Future, provides an annual trauma-informed continuing education day along with free occupational therapy screenings for children in foster care. Find more information at www.fosterthefuturealabama.org or on their Facebook page.
Although not limited to fostered and adopted children, childhood trauma, to some degree, is certain to have been experienced by them and the results can go a long way in sabotaging the efforts of foster and adoptive parents. Unfortunately, removing children from existing trauma does not automatically remove the pain of the trauma that has already been experienced. Even into adulthood, trauma triggers can cause the person to relive the original event or emotions attached to that event.
I interviewed Ashcraft and her words, as a professional and a parent, can help us all better understand the issue of trauma triggers:
What criteria qualifies an event to be considered a trauma?
The best way to understand what qualifies as trauma is to look at the ACE study by Anda and Felitti. ACE, or Adverse Childhood Experiences, include different types of trauma that can impact childhood. Complex or developmental trauma is when trauma repeatedly occurs throughout childhood. Trauma increases when a child’s internal and external resilience and resilience factors are inadequate to cope with the external threat. (Van der Kolk, 1989). You can see the questions here and find your own ACE score:
It is my understanding that a trigger could be anything that causes the person to relive the pain of the original trauma. Can you expound?
Yes, a trigger can cause the person to relive the pain of the original trauma or even just trigger a stress (fight, flight, freeze) response. Often people think of a trigger as being a very direct correlation where the person is in a very similar situation to the environment of the original trauma. But, a trigger can also be anything that taps into a fear response. It may appear to others to be a reaction that is overly intense for the situation but it is because a different neurobiological response has been triggered for that child or person. Bruce Perry has done extensive work on this and you can learn more at http://childtrauma.org/nmt-model/.
How certain is childhood trauma found in a foster and/or adoptive child?
Being in foster care or adopted inherently includes trauma, regardless of the age of the child at the time of adoption. One of the 10 questions on the ACE study quiz is “Before your 18th birthday, was a biological parent ever lost to you through divorce, abandonment, or other reason?” Every child who is adopted or in foster care would answer yes to this question. Depending on the child’s situation, foster and adopted children may have experienced more trauma than the loss of their biological family as well. But, it is crucial for adoptive families and professionals working with children to understand that the loss of biological family is a type of trauma and should not be minimized.
What are some tips for recognizing trauma triggers?
If a child’s response does not seem to “fit” the situation, it could be a trauma trigger. Absolutely resist the urge to assume that a child is “being bad” or just “acting out” because labeling behavior that is triggered by trauma as bad will not help the child or change their behavior. Instead, this is the time to begin investigating the need being expressed behind the behavior. Trust Based Relational Intervention (TBRI) is a great approach to better understand how to see the needs expressed behind the behavior.
What are some basic interventions that a parent or caregiver might start with?
The first intervention as a parent or caregiver is really to equip yourself with good professionals and good training. I highly recommend anything provided by the Karyn Purvis Institute of Child Development. Seek out a good counselor for yourself as well as a trauma-informed counselor for your child. A trauma-informed occupational therapist can help a great deal with sensory processing, regulation, social skills, and skill building for school, home, and community environments.
What words of encouragement would you share with a discouraged parent?
Secondary trauma is a very real thing that foster and adoptive parents experience where they become weighed down and traumatized themselves as a result of trying to help their child who experienced trauma. Being a parent to a child who has experienced trauma is an amazing experience, but you must equip yourself to stay healthy for you and your family. I highly encourage parents to find a good counselor for themselves and their family. Seeking out good resources and finding people in your community who are also fostering and adoptive parents will help build a community of support and keep you from feeling isolated during difficult seasons. Build in downtime to your family so that you have the time and emotional capacity to implement the strategies you will learn from trauma informed training.
Melinda also shared her thoughts for parents and caregivers, from the viewpoint of an abused child. “Believe the best about your child and follow your instincts. Pray, pray, pray not only for your child but for wisdom for yourself. I know it’s almost impossible sometimes to tell if the root of a problem is medical, mental, emotional, or spiritual, or just a child being a child. But don’t rule anything out. Be careful of your own reactions so that your child is not afraid to talk to you.”
As a foster parent of dozens of children for 15 years and now an adoptive parent of seven children who are now all teens and young adults, I wish I had been better prepared. I didn’t understand about trauma triggers or secondary trauma. I would often feel I had failed when children I cared for continued to struggle even though I was trying so hard to provide stability and give them the care they needed.
If I had known better, if I had understood better, I would have fostered and parented better. Thankfully, it is not too late to do better as parents, grandparents and teachers. We can grow and learn and change. It isn’t too late for us or our children.
Stephanie Rodda lives in the Birmingham area with her husband and children. Her favorite subjects to write about are faith and family. She is an author, blogger and freelance writer. StephanieRodda.wordpress.com.