Finding Hope after Trauma: The Remarkable Recovery of the Adolescent Brain

In an ideal world, no young person would ever experience trauma. But until that happens, let's make sure that all young people have the support necessary to rewire and recover. They deserve nothing less.
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Young people who have experienced trauma are extraordinarily resilient. Whether it's a child in a homeless shelter who discovers the joy of reading or newly minted college graduates who overcame poverty - their ability to recover from traumatic events is nothing short of remarkable.

Nowhere is this clearer than among the population of young people who have been in foster care.

Having spent the last three decades working for improvements to foster care in the U.S., I am constantly inspired by the resilience I see in young people disproportionately affected by trauma. And yet, we are not doing all we can to support them.

For young people in foster care, that support network is essential, especially when you consider how significantly this population is impacted by traumatic events. In fact, a 2005 study conducted by Casey Family Programs found rates of PTSD in young people formerly in foster care to be more than twice that of U.S. war veterans.

Trauma comes in all forms, and whether the trauma young people in foster care experience is defined by physical or sexual abuse, moving from place to place, being separated from siblings and other loved ones, or living in a disjointed system -- its impact can be devastating. Without access to a supportive family or network, young people in foster care -- especially those who abruptly age out of the foster care system -- don't have the same opportunity to recover and move on.

And yet, it is precisely during that window of their young lives -- between ages 14 and 25 -- that young people have the most potential for recovery and resilience. New advances in neuroscience tell us that the brain is not "done" by age six, as previously thought. Instead, the adolescent brain continues to develop, providing a "use it or lose it" timeframe similar to that which exists in early childhood. Even after significant trauma, the brain can indeed rewire itself -- meaning that the physiological consequences of trauma can be reversed.

Systems that support young people must seize this window of opportunity.

For those in foster care, especially those placed in care following a traumatic experience, maintaining stable relationships with responsible and caring family members, teachers, or other mentors provides a critical sense of support and rootedness. Child welfare systems should encourage and create opportunities for these relationships to develop and thrive.

We must also help young people who have experienced trauma forge healthy connections with support networks that are important to their ongoing well-being. Specifically, gaining experiences that encourage them to stay in school and navigate their way to college or technical training, such as internships and part-time jobs and community-based activities, like after-school sports or music groups. These connections help build young people's self-confidence, help them see what is possible, and often provide the springboard for achieving important life goals like renting an apartment or securing a job. Through my own career working with youth leadership groups dedicated to young people in foster care, I have seen individuals emerge from quiet and reserved to articulate spokespeople on complex policy issues that have direct meaning in their lives.

Navigating through the challenges of adolescence is not easy for any young person, let alone a young person who has experienced significant trauma. Because of this, we must extend foster care beyond the age of 18. We do not assume that our own children have every support they will ever need by the time they turn 18; transitioning into adulthood is not a one-day event. We must advocate for the inclusion of supportive, age-appropriate social services for young people in foster care that more closely mirror the experiences of young people in supportive, intact families.

In an ideal world, no young person would ever experience trauma. But until that happens, let's make sure that all young people have the support necessary to rewire and recover. They deserve nothing less.

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