Foster Care Providers Desire Training to Help Children with Empathy

Foster care providers face challenges that most caregivers never experience. Children placed in their care come with a history of negative experiences that can include neglect, sexual abuse, violence, emotional unavailability, mental abuse, verbal abuse, exposure to drug and alcohol use, and other traumatic events. These children often lack the basic skills necessary to develop healthy relationships with caregivers and cannot interact in empathetic and understanding ways with peers and others. Because these children had impaired attachments with their primary caregivers in their birth families, they never had the opportunity to learn how to hone these essential social and interpersonal tools. This impairment creates a difficult and emotionally strained environment in which foster caregivers must navigate to help these children engage with other foster children and caring individuals.

The inner working model (IWM) is the foundation for empathy and understanding. The majority of foster children have a flawed IWM due to their maltreatment that causes them to feel inadequate. They have difficulty understanding and interpreting others’ emotions because of the emotional responses they experienced from their birth families, many of which were expressed with anger and violence. This leads foster children to have distorted perceptions of other people’s emotions, hampering their ability to empathize and understand. Because the role of foster caregivers is to provide positive developmental environments for these abused children, it is imperative that they have the tools necessary to do so.

To determine what caregivers need most to increase empathy and understanding in foster children, Nikki Luke of the School of Psychology at the University of Sussex in England surveyed 10 foster caregivers and found that most believed that the lack of empathetic skills directly influenced the children’s emotional regulation. Even children who could effectively perceive emotions of others were unable to access empathetic resources when they experienced stress and frustration. This was common among children who experienced volatile and hostile environments before entering foster care. The caregivers expressed a strong desire to have additional training that would teach them strategies for increasing empathy and social understanding in abused children of all ages. Luke believes that the key to social prosperity for these children lies in successful emotional regulation. She added, “Children who lack these skills are not a lost cause, and the foster placement should be viewed as a key context in which change is possible.”

Luke, N., Banerjee, R. (2012). Maltreated children’s social understanding and empathy: A preliminary exploration of foster carers’ perspectives. Journal of Child & Family Studies 21.2, 237-246.

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  • Christie

    April 12th, 2012 at 3:32 PM

    I have been a foster parent who had the chance to adopt and we did, but when I fostered I was not disillusioned to think that the experience was going to be easy and that we would all bond instantly. I knew that those things took time, and we just had to be patient and when he pushed us away, we just had to keep telling him that we loved him. But I think that it took him a long time to actually believe it and to see that no matter what he was not getting rid of us.

  • Alex

    April 13th, 2012 at 4:12 AM

    ha! states barely have enough money to pay the providers for their foster services, much less add more money by adding training for them. Is this something that is needed? I don’t think that anyone would disagree with that. But right now? Can you name more than a handful of states whose budgets are sovent enough to handle the extra expense?

  • jackson

    April 13th, 2012 at 4:18 PM

    This may sound negative, but there are far too many people who are licensed to be foster parents then who need to be. I know there are kinds who need families, but do they really need to be put in homes where the parents are doing it just to collect another paycheck? Granted there are hopefully not many families like this, but it happens. And I can promose you that the last thing they are thinking about is how to instill more empathy in the children who are living with them. They are just looking to slide by and colect the pay.

  • Sullivan Marks

    April 14th, 2012 at 11:22 AM

    The parents need training to help these children with this issue, but the children need to be taken care of by a family counselor who is aware of their very specific needs and who can help them to work to overcome them. Educating the parents is important, but maybe not as important as offering in depth counseling to the children so that they too can better understand some of the feelings and emotions that they have. Sadly, many of them may have never received any love and affection in their biological homes so they have to be taught not only how to show this to their new families, but they have to also be taught how to accept the love that is being offered to them.

  • Edwin Rutsch

    April 14th, 2012 at 4:22 PM

    May I suggest a further resource to learn more about empathy and compassion.
    The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy
    The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews,  videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion. is also a sponsor for our yearlong conference on building empathy. We invite members to be interviewed and host panel discussions.

  • fauna

    April 15th, 2012 at 4:52 AM

    so sad when you see a family take in a child and try to provide a good home but the child is so reluctant about being there and becoming a part of the family that the relationship seems doomed from the start.

  • Lorna

    April 16th, 2012 at 5:12 AM

    I will never forget my own family’s experience with fostering a child. We all thought that this was going to be something important and special for all of us but instead it was a horrible experience. I do not say this to turn others off to fostering, but I say it to be homest and to share the reality of what the experience can be like. It was a situation where none of us were ever able to bond with one another- he did not trust us and dare I say after a few mishaps none of us were able to trust his actions either. I suppose for all of us there were too many barriers for us to try to overcome and unfortunately we were not the nd family for him. I wished him nothing but peace and love, but sadly I have to think that this is something that he will struggle to find in life.

  • Anonymous

    October 12th, 2021 at 7:55 PM

    As a foster kid I hated the feeling of moving home from home it really messes up your emotions like showing empathy for others and sympathy till this day i still struggle of how to love someone and care.

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