You don’t Learn This on Sesame Street: Hypervigilance and Foster Children

What is hypervigilance? Well, hypervigilance is constantly being attentive to the environment because of the possibility of unknown threats. I have written about Child PTSD before, but today’s post is about hypervigilance, which is certainly related to PTSD. I am not an expert, I am only sharing my experience.

A few weeks ago we went to the zoo. One of the disappointing outcomes of this visit was our foster child’s inability to remember ANYTHING from the zoo. Why did this happen? Because there is no brain damage or other known issues, this memory issue most likely occurred because of hypervigilance. The kid was so worried about something possibly going wrong, that the kid couldn’t actually enjoy being at the zoo.

The amount of brain power that children in foster care devote to worry about something possibly going wrong makes a lot of things more difficult. A child in a stable environment will not need to worry about where the next meal is coming from, when a parent will wake up after a drug/alcohol binge, or when the parent will snap and become physically abusive. Can you imagine sleeping and being awakened by yelling, screaming, or violence? Hypervigilance is a learned survival process. If you aren’t being hypervigilant, you might not make it through the night safely.

Is there danger lurking around the corner? Hypervigilance impacts the kids’ abilities to learn colors, language, and other basic things because they are devoting energy to environmental surveillance.  Children who are hypervigilant aren’t stupid, although many times they are behind in learning. Children who are hypervigilant are survivors, forced to be constantly attentive to everything in their world. As a foster parent, it is my job to provide a safe environment, where the kids can be less attentive to unknown threats, and trust that my home is warm, well stocked with food, and that violence does not exist.

Being a foster parent to hypervigilant children is obviously challenging. Sometimes it can seem similar to ADHD, because I am talking to a kid who isn’t fully paying attention. Sure, a lot of that can be normal kid stuff. But not being able to remember what happened five minutes ago, on a regular basis, is not normal. I keep telling myself it’s not my fault, and that that kid isn’t intentionally ignoring most of what I say.

The kids came from an unstable world, where survival was not guaranteed by the parents, and self-preservation was more important than learning colors via Sesame Street. Such is the life of a foster parent.

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