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Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Focus on Fostering: Ghosts of Past Lives

I was reminded recently of the amazing power, and fluidity, of a child's memories.  Think back to some of your favorite childhood memories.  For me one memory is picnics on a place we called "Buttercup Hill" because it was blanketed in waving yellow buttercups.  I remember all the times my family would go there for Saturday or Sunday picnics.  It was only when I was in my 50s and mentioned the memory to my parents that I discovered we had only gone there two times!  The memory is so vivid and complete in my mind, that I almost argued with them. Surely we had gone more often, frequently even? No, only twice. Yet in my mind it happened all the time. Even now, knowing the reality, in my mind it is a favorite childhood pastime.

Unfortunately unhappy childhood memories can be just as vivid... and sometimes just as fluid.  I remember a 6-year old foster child who bolted, screaming down the hall of the elementary school, finally hiding and cowering in a janitor's closet, behind a mop.  When all was settled and over we realized that the assistant principal [who he had been trying to escape after a casual "Hello there"] was a quazi-lookalike for the social services worked who had three years earlier taken him screaming out of his mother's arms and taken him in the department's "care."  Anyone who has seen someone with PTSD flashbacks can understand the child's reaction.

More recently a teenage foster child had an unyielding negative attitude toward a well-intentioned, kind individual. Complaints about bossiness, yelling, etc. etc. etc. were a constant flood from the child.  When we discovered that the individual bore a resemblance to the child's abusive parent, we had no solution, but we did have the answer to why.

Remember the illustrations of "mother" and "father" in baby books and toys?  Think how basic the image is.  Small wonder that a child who was abused at a very young age might have memories of earlier abuse triggered by someone with only mild similarities to the actual abuser.

As foster parents, be on the lookout for warning signs of these emotional flashbacks. Don't suggest them to the child, but don't shut them down if it comes up. Be prepared.

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