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Waking Up Scared: Pediatric PTSD in Foster Youth

Waking Up Scared: Pediatric PTSD in Foster Youth

Original Post July, 2016

I remember my grandfather, WWII Veteran, Lt. Col. for the U.S. Air Force, saying he always had horrible nightmares. His wife sadly confirmed the gasps and writhing, and screaming and crying she often woke up to. I can only imagine how he awoke! This would remain the truth many decades, several children, and several grandchildren later. He’d moved to a new home, started a new career, retired and was physically safe. And yet, his mind was still fearful and tortured him nightly.

This is how I knew something was wrong when my (then foster) son kept waking up scared.

It’s 3AM.

“Pew! Pew! Pew! Mmmmmmmm…” (Rapid fire sounds, heavy breathing, fingers in alternating fists or gun shapes.)
“Pew!” (That’s the gunshot sound.) 
“No!” (Whimper, roll over, pound fists and gasp.)

I can’t tell if he’s hiding or fighting back. In the past, I’ve had the “privilege” of witnessing him covering his face, slamming his head into the bed over and over, slapping himself… the universal gestures of “Please, make it stop!”

Sleeping Is When Bad Things Happen.

After all that, he can not go back to sleep. Does not want to.

Once, he described his scary thoughts were like airplanes in the sky and they just kept flying over. I asked why he couldn’t just land the planes or even – with a poor attempt at humor – shoot them down. He seemed haunted by this. 

“I don’t think I can.”

My Son Only Served in his War for 6 Years.

Or perhaps, it was only a few minutes of extreme terror. Since he was too young to communicate what he’d been through, I can only make guesses. But the panic he felt and the tangible torture that wakes our household on a daily basis is highly reminiscent of my grandfather’s stories. It seizes him from slumber. It causes blackouts and time-travelling during the day.

Once, I described the experience as dualism to his social worker. 

He can’t see me, but he knows where he is. He can hear me, but he’s also hearing and responding to something, er… somebody else. In the snap of a finger… maybe I cook something and the smell triggers him, or maybe I bring out a toy he brought with him… his body stills and enters a trance. Flashbacks can look like this. The suffers don’t always blackout. They aren’t always 100% consumed by the vision. Sometimes it’s a blend of reality and memory all at once.

PTSD Sands for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

PTSD can manifest in many ways, one being nightmares. For my son, it seems he suffered from reliving the same scenario repeatedly.

Last year, we installed a baby monitor in his room so we could track the activity. 9pm. 12am. 3am. 5am. Nightmare after nightmare after nightmare… Always waking scared. Always gun shots. Always fighting or defending or hiding. 

Sometimes he dwells and lays awake afterward, lost in his head. Sometimes he sobs heavily until he exhausts himself. To be clear, I did tend to him through many of the events. But sometimes, my body simply couldn’t handle the demand. I’d lay in bed with one eye open, taking in the glow from the monitor. 

“Please, baby, go back to sleep.”

I heard some odd comments about why my son still took naps during the day (Yay homeschooling!). Now you know why.

Sleeping Can Be Scary.

And unfortunately, his memories are locked in that head… he can’t explain them. He never really remembers the details. He can’t explain the shooting sounds, or the fists… but his body certainly remembers. 

I feel SO sad about this. It’s like ghosts are haunting our home and I cannot time travel to the days when he was in danger. I cannot undo the trauma, cannot stand up for him, or protect him, or even have had him removed from his other family sooner. 

I have to hold onto the knowledge that we’ve been lined up as as a family through God’s perfect timing and interventions. “Now” is still a good time to have this boy in my home. I cannot change the past, or dwell in regret. He’s here now— in a new home, with new parents, and he’s physically safe. 

Folks, don’t beat up on yourself for not being there sooner for the children you take care of. Save your energy for the “now.”

Focus on the healing, love them as-is, and stay present, even when they don’t. 

In case you are wondering…The ONE reprieve we’ve found is using a sensory tent/isolation tent/privacy tent (whatever you want to call it). We used this one https://www.privacypop.com/ It’s pricey, but you can shop around. 

He would almost make it through the night in his small, dark enclosure. Worth every penny, in my opinion. Later, it can be an outdoor enclosure for something more fun. Maybe I should get one for my 95-year old grandfather? Seriously though… if you know someone with PTSD, or even some sort of sensory disorder, this may be a healthy investment. 

Oh, in case you’ve thought to mention it: Melatonin did NOT help. It put my son to sleep faster than normal and helped overcome the fear of going to sleep, but could not beat the hauntings.  I’m afraid to even try other sleeping aids due to the reviews saying that folks feel trapped inside the dream. That sounds terrible!

If anyone has another suggestion or comment to share regarding pediatric PTSD, I’d love to hear it. First-hand recommendations are my favorite type!


The author writes from an unabashed, had-it-up-to-here, daily defeated and re-strengthened by grace and hope… kind of place. An adoptive mother of a curious kiddo, full of spirit and sass, tells her tales of homeschooling, fostering, and raising children with special needs. Thanks for joining us on this adventure from adoption to life!

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