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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