Special Topics in Foster Parenting: Managing Difficult Behaviors
Updated: Dec 29, 2020
Children who have been placed in foster homes have often experienced significant trauma, abuse, and/or neglect, which can profoundly affect healthy growth and development. The early childhood years are crucial, and are the building block years for a child's overall development including physical and cognitive growth, emotional responses, and patterns of attachment in relationships. Trauma and abuse can have profound and varied effects on a child's development, depending on the child's unique biology and personality, the nature of the trauma, the timeframe and duration of trauma, and incalculable other factors which may influence each child's unique situation, perception, and response.
Foster parents often witness the effects of trauma first-hand and are "first responders" to the child's survival behaviors, coping techniques, and trauma responses. Here are a couple things to consider when addressing behaviors exhibited by traumatized children.
Understand how trauma affects the brain
There are many books you can read about the profound effects of trauma on the brain, especially during the absolutely essential and crucial childhood years, in which the brain is actively developing and learning how to perceive and respond to the world. One great resource is "The Connected Child" by Karin Purvis. If a child's basic needs (shelter, food, comfort) are not met in early childhood years, or if they have experienced inconsistent met needs, the child learns that they cannot fully trust others/adults/caregivers to provide them with their needs and may develop insecure attachments and other coping behaviors and beliefs that reflect what they've experienced. These may include increased anxiety, insecurity and distrust in relationships, and emotional dysregulation among many other things. Overall, becoming aware of the physical changes in a child's brain structure that can occur due to trauma, and the psychological effects of trauma, may help one become more aware of the reasons that a child may be exhibiting certain challenging behaviors.
Consult with Professionals
Sometimes challenging behaviors indicate that a child needs additional support from healthcare professionals. Consulting with a child psychiatrist, psychologist, and/or licensed counselor is typically required in foster care, and can help provide you with more information about how to help your child cope with the trauma they have endured, and how to support their needs in the best way possible. Ensuring that your child is up-to-date on medical appointments and mental health appointments can help you get on top of challenging behaviors and can provide both you and your child with crucial support.
In general, children tend to appreciate routine and predictability in their schedules. This is even more crucial when parenting children who have come from difficult places, to help them gain a sense of stability, predictability, and felt safety. "Actual" safety and "felt" safety are two different things. Your child may be objectively safe in your home; however, due to the way experiencing trauma affects the brain and the mind, uncertainty and unpredictability in daily routines may cause significant distress. Let your child help you determine their daily routine, write it out on a poster board, and place it at eye level so that they can see exactly what will happen from day to day based on your family routine. If routines have to be changed or adjusted, provide ample time to prepare for the adjustment, provide guidance to the child about what this change will look like and opportunities to cope or adjust. Your child may implement these changes easily, or you may see increased behavioral challenges during the adjustment due to increased unpredictability and potential anxiety. Providing a consistent-as-possible routine with the child's "buy-in" helps create opportunities for the mind to move from a state of unpredictability, anxiety, and "fight-or-flight", to increased calm, and provides opportunities to increase trust and practice positive coping skills.
Examine behaviors for coping skills
Children are very attuned to behaviors and techniques that work in their environments. In the case of children who have been traumatized, they may have adopted behaviors that helped them where they were, even to survive. Aggression, withdrawal, sneakiness or lying, resistance to authority at home/school or rules, etc., may be examples of these coping mechanisms depending on how the child perceives the world and their role in it. Examining your child's behavior for both underlying needs, insecurities, anxieties, or fears as well as strengths, coping mechanisms, resilience, and necessity may help you better understand why your child is doing certain things, and how you can begin to provide the healing environment they may need to create new behaviors.
Don't try to completely extinguish coping skills - adjust them instead.
Use the concept of "reframing" to help your child thrive in their current environment, not by seeking to extinguish all behaviors and create new ones, but by reframing by their strengths and abilities. For example, if your child is strong-willed and it takes persistence to persuade them to comply with house rules, find ways to use their strong sense of autonomy in a way that helps the child gain self-confidence and also moves towards goals. For example, depending on age, let them be in charge of tasks such as feeding the family dog, making simple dishes (sandwiches, etc) for their lunch at school, let them pick out a plant and be in charge of it, whatever motivates them. Be creative and tailor the tasks to the child's interests and abilities. In using this mindset to build positive rapport, and reframing "unwilling to comply" into "strong-willed and capable of autonomy", or "withdrawn or unwilling to participate" into "thoughtful, cautious, and carefully attuned to their environment", you provide your child with an opportunity to see their strengths and use them positively, both now in the future, rather than seeing them as a source of conflict.
Many children who have experienced trauma have difficulty regulating their emotions, they may also be moving through developmental stages at a slower or quicker rate than other children their biological age due to their past experiences. This means that behavioral interventions are most effective when tailored to the child's unique needs. Maintaining routine and appropriate boundaries, remaining consistent, providing ample positive feedback, and ensuring responsiveness when a child expresses big emotions can all be effective. Keeping track of when these moments occur, what was happening before and during, and how the moment was resolved, can give you an idea of what may have "triggered" the emotion, and in finding patterns, may be able to help you and your child's mental health professionals tailor behavioral approaches to your child's needs.
Self-care is crucial
Some days are just hard. No matter how many tools you implement or books you read, caring for children from difficult places takes a Herculean amount of compassion, patience and grace all around. Take intentional time to care for yourself in whatever form works for you. Ask for respite when you can, lean on trusted friends and family, and give yourself the utmost grace to do what you do! Foster parenting is an incredibly hard job, an incredibly needed job, a rewarding job, and one that truly changes the world.