Co Authors: R. Elmoursi, MA, LLP; S. Zahoor (foster parent)
You’ve spent weeks maybe months preparing for the arrival of a foster child, after getting your license. You’re excited to welcome this person into your home and with that anticipation and excitement it can be easy to lose sight of how this all translates to the child. The reality is, as benevolent as your intentions might be about rescuing a foster child from an abusive or neglected home, that child has a very different perception and is most likely unhappy about the placement. For the child there is nothing “benevolent” about being removed from one’s home abruptly and taken away from his/her parents. Even if a child is mature enough to see or understand that conditions were not suitable for a child, a child will still prefer that familiar dysfunction over an unfamiliar home.
It is therefore so important for a new foster parent, not to get discouraged by the child’s seemingly lack of gratitude. Understand that in addition to being separated from their parents and home, they are removed from their extended family, familiar neighborhood, school friends , and teachers, community, favorite toys. Often these children are removed so suddenly from their home or school, that they may not have time to pack clothes or their favorite items, and may arrive in their foster home with just the clothes on their back and a few items donated to them by the agency.
When dealing with smaller children especially, expect that they will ask for their mother or father and often times you may not be able to give a truthful answer to why or when they will see their parents. With younger children, there may be fear, tears, not wanting to follow rules, because you’re “not my mommy or daddy” and often because your rules and expectations may be so different to what they were used to in their birth home. They may regress in their behavior; throw tantrums or experience bedwetting and nightmares. These are typically caused by anxiety and adjustment to new and unfamiliar surroundings. Although these are all common behavioral responses to the transition, there may also be psychological or medical conditions that may compound these behaviors.
Expect that some children might even see their acceptance of foster parents as a form of betrayal to their biological parents therefore some resistance is natural. Expect that some children may convince themselves that it is their fault they were removed from the home and if they were “better kids” that this wouldn’t have happened. Children who experience this type of thoughts have feelings of guilt, shame and sometimes low self-worth.
With children of all ages, expect a lack of trust and possible anger directed at you (more prominent in older children/teenagers). Expect some level of anxiousness and sadness, maybe even confusion. It is also common to see foster children who blame themselves for their placement creating feelings of guilt, shame and anger directed at themselves.
On arrival, many children will be fairly quiet or shy and disengaged. Sometimes, they are still processing the events that have led to their removal and may still be “in shock”. Some may prefer to sit alone or isolate themselves in their bedrooms. Check in on the child every now and then to make sure they’re safe and ask if they need anything. Don’t force a “connection” and pay attention to the child’s cues. Let those cues (especially when dealing with a teenager) determine when the child is ready to open up. They may refuse to eat or sit at the table without eating much. Don’t force the child to eat; eventually hunger will kick in after the initial anxiety of leaving their home has worn off. When the child asks for food at some odd time of the day, don’t question why he/she did not eat earlier and instead provide something to eat or ask what foods they like. This will help build trust. If there is a family activity such as watching a movie or playing a board game, invite the child to participate or sit in the same room and observe. Let the child decide if he/she would like to participate. Giving the child the ability to make a choice is very significant because most children feel a loss of control in their own lives. The reality is they were not asked if they wanted to be placed with a foster family; the decision was made for them. Try to create opportunities, even small ones, where a child is allowed to make a choice. This too will enable trust but also provide empowerment, boost confidence and naturally decrease feelings of anxiety.
Remember that your role is not to counsel or provide therapy to this child. There can sometimes be a natural inclination to want to alleviate the child’s emotional suffering and provide counsel. You should be empathetic of their emotional struggles and cognizant of how it is being reflected in their behaviors. Try to provide a safe and nurturing environment. Work with the agency to make an appointment with a behavioral specialist as soon as possible. Most states require a birth parent’s signature before that child can be seen by a therapist or psychiatrist which can often frustrate foster parents who have to witness the psychological trauma a foster placement can have on a child. Once therapy begins, it is important to communicate your concerns and the child’s behavior to the specialist, as often times, foster children may not be truthful about their experience until trust is established. You have a right to ask the therapist for suggestions on how to handle certain situations and behaviors and it is important for you to give them feedback following their advice.
Often, the best thing you can do as a foster parent is allow the child to be a child. That is, allow them to play outside, to draw and color or be creative, to listen to music, to read, to be as worry-free as possible. Of course there are house rules, boundaries and routines that need to be followed and providing structure aids child development in a healthy manner. Do not minimize the importance of engaging in child-like normal activities and the natural healing that occurs with it.
To summarize, some things you can expect from a domestic foster child include:
- Feelings of anxiousness and sadness
- Reflected in different ways such as isolation, disengagement, resistance, behavioral issues or developmental setbacks (bed-wetting, ignoring rules, tantrums, etc.)
- Feelings of confusion, fear and/or anger
- Of being removed from home
- Of worry that they will not return to biological parents
- Lack of trust
- Need for control
- Feelings of anxiousness and sadness
- Self blame, feelings of guilt and shame
- Of the future
- Of how they fit in foster family currently
- Emotional transition for all household members
Last but not least, it is just as important to expect changes in your own emotions/behavior when you bring a new foster child into your home. You may also feel anxious and scared. You may worry that you’ve taken on too much or wish you handled a situation differently or wonder if this exposure will somehow negatively impact your birth children. There is no perfect guide book on how to foster a child, as every child is unique and every foster parent and family structure is also different. Just as your foster child needs support and guidance, you too should seek out assistance from those around you. Make sure you have a good support system in place including family, friends, neighbors, community (teachers, employers, pediatricians, dentists, etc.) and religious leaders. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Know that you, your family members, and the foster child are all transitioning and together with more realistic expectations, a little empathy and respect, the initial challenges should slowly diminish and with that, the family dynamic will mold into one that provides nurture and enrichment for everyone.
Discipline Techniques For Adopted And Foster Children. January 15, 2016. https://perspectivesoftroy.com/discipline-techniques-foster-children/
Leve, L. D., Harold, G. T., Chamberlain, P., Landsverk, J. A., Fisher, P. A., & Vostanis, P. (2012). Practitioner Review: Children in foster care – vulnerabilities and evidence-based interventions that promote resilience processes. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, and Allied Disciplines, 53(12), 1197–1211. http://doi.org/10.1111/j.1469-7610.2012.02594.x