Rules of Engagement with Foster and Adoptive Children

Foster parent with childMost children and teens in the foster care system have experienced significant rejection, whether their biological parents ignored their most fundamental needs or acted violently against them in some way to bring a false semblance of control to the chaos of their own lives. Then, of course, there are even greater evils: sexual abuses and other physical and emotional forms of torture.

When these kids are placed into the warmly anticipating homes of well-meaning foster parents, often there exists a gulf between preconceived expectations for their behavior as a member of this new family and the reality of these children’s ongoing emotional warfare. Children in foster care may experience profound difficulties such as significant delays in normal developmental processes, from learning language and gaining healthy physical mobility to using age-appropriate thinking skills and engaging in appropriate social behaviors. Abnormalities in appetite and sleep are often lingering effects that can stop and start for years.

Additionally, foster children and teens may regularly or periodically engage in behaviors that mirror the very abuse they have endured or other behavioral reflections of unresolved trauma—nearly always carrying some outdated, adaptive purpose once essential to their survival. These behaviors may include hoarding food, self-harming/self-soothing behaviors (rocking, chanting, scratching, biting, or cutting themselves), and acts of aggression and cruelty often directed at those smaller and less powerful (such as younger children and animals). Such acts of aggression and cruelty may stem from undeveloped empathy and impulse control that may reflect an attempt to understand how others react when experiencing pain and may also reflect a kind of reprocessing of past harm directed upon themselves.

In many cases, children who have endured such a lack of nurturance may engage in “indiscriminant attachment” behaviors, in which abused or neglected children may seek affectionate behaviors from individuals relatively unknown to them in a kind of misplaced effort to find reassurance of safety. This may be because they never developed a strong and secure emotional bond with a caregiver during critical junctures of development. Again, such behaviors may reflect underlying survivalist as well as investigatory causes.

Renowned psychiatrist and researcher Daniel Siegel (1999) noted, “The care that adults provide nurtures the development of essential mental tools for survival. These attachment experiences enable children to thrive and achieve a highly flexible and adaptive capacity for balancing their emotions, thinking, and empathic connections with others” (p. 33).

With this in mind, foster and adoptive parents (all parents, for that matter) must understand and acknowledge that there are ways they may choose to manage their children’s maladaptive behaviors that may be more effective and constructive—both for immediate practical purposes and in terms of nurturing overall development—and ways that may be not only ineffective in redirecting behaviors but may also be destructive to the necessary mission of resolving fundamental attachment needs and spurring healthy ego development, prosocial activity, and capacities for independent life skills.

It cannot be overstated: The moment-by-moment, day-by-day tactics used by parents who care for children and adolescents who have been victims of abuse or neglect should take into consideration not only the desirable here-and-now effects of such tactics, but also, and far more importantly, the ultimate desirable impacts of their words, actions, and quality of relationship in the future. Development is a marathon. Every mile marker is lined with either a cheering squad of supporters bearing affirmation and nourishment or the lonely and painful oppression of dark voices and traumatic experiences that interject between confidences, spurning hope.

Zig Ziglar said it best: “Be careful not to compromise what you want most for what you want now.” The volume is turned up on such “dark voices” when parents engage in power grabs or spineless placation as the children in their care scale the precipice of an already steep and daunting developmental cliff. Rather, the route less traveled, the arduous adventure that makes resilient, goal-directed men and women out of wounded children, is always the one in which a parent joins more intimately, more affectionately, and more vulnerably into the mire while maintaining footing, perspective, and discipline.

Here are my recommended “rules of engagement” to consider in moments of distress or disruption. If you listen closely and read between the lines, you will hear echoes of ancient wisdom here:

  1. Seek first to understand and then to be understood. When kids misbehave, parents who understand their children’s underlying needs (related to development and, in some cases, past trauma) respond in ways that guide the development of the personality underneath the monstrous mood paralyzing it. Bruce Perry (2001) wrote, “The more you can learn about attachment problems, bonding, normal development and abnormal development, the more you will be able to develop useful behavioral and social interventions. Information about these problems can prevent you from misunderstanding the child’s behaviors.” He added, “A punitive approach to (these problems) will not help the child mature. Indeed, punishment may actually increase the child’s sense of insecurity, distress and need” (p. 9).
  2. Know thyself. It is crucial that you understand your own underlying predispositions and that you ensure appropriate checks and balances are in place to protect your children from your own unresolved issues. I have written (2011), “To the extent that we fail to go toe-to-toe with our own reflex and mood, our reflex and mood will go toe-to-toe with the ones we love. We will find ourselves acting in ways that sabotage our own efforts to get more of what we want, whether it be understanding, connection or behavior change.”
  3. Have the courage to do whatever may be helpful. You can establish structure for a child by implementing house rules as well as child-specific goals, by linking privileges to responsibilities, by creating safe and private spaces for children to be and discover who they are, and by engaging them regularly in playful—as well as skill-building—activities that facilitate opportunities to explore relationships and the world around them. You can provide feedback to a child by giving affection unconditionally, lavishing praise on every effort and success, large or small, by showing interest and inquiring into their lives, whether they like it or not and whether they’re responsive or not.
  4. Try to lay off of issues you cannot resolve. You cannot simply fix the problem of disobedient behavior through any immediate reaction, but you can sabotage an opportunity for your child’s deep emotional learning and moral-muscle conditioning through giving into your own need to rant and blame. You cannot change whether your kid is responsive to your affection and praise, but you can hold his or her emotional autonomy hostage by engaging in self-serving attempts to procure reciprocity. You cannot change whether your kid is particularly shy or moody or energetic (i.e., temperament), but you can inflict or reinforce a psychological complex in which he or she is left to contend with lingering suspicions that he or she is not good enough.
  5. In all things, seek to be an instrument of peace. This is not an easy mission, but it is the right one. It should be the prologue and the epilogue to your own personal parenting manual. It must be your first prayer before you step into the mire each day and the final project each night if it is to be achieved. If I have not yet established a persuasive case for those who perpetually believe that their way is the right way, perhaps the immensely practical words of W.L. Bateman will drive us home: “If you keep on doing what you’ve always done, you’ll keep on getting what you’ve always got.”


  1. Edwards, B. (2011). Fighting, family, and finding peace. Relevant Magazine:
  2. Perry, B.D. (2001). Bonding and attachment in maltreated children: Consequences of emotional neglect in childhood. Caregiver Education Series. Houston: ChildTrauma Academy.
  3. Siegel, D. (1999). The developing mind: How relationships and the brain interact to shape who we are. New York: The Guilford Press.

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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Erik Young, M.Ed., LPC

    February 21st, 2013 at 3:26 PM

    Thank you for this wonderful article. Your advice is spot on. As a foster parent myself, I can remember how confusing and surprising my foster-child’s reactions to such simple things as praise (which often provoked aggression and anger) were. It was like all the rules I knew for how to change behaviors were tossed on their head.

    At the end of the day, seeking to give the child concrete, positive and loving experiences seems to work…but it takes time and an inordinate amount of patience.

  • christie

    February 21st, 2013 at 4:26 PM

    Such a tough issue because there are so many older kids in the foster system that you want to be able to give a good home to but there are many families who are evry intimidated by the kids’ past and know that they will have a difficult time dealing with all of the issues that they will all face together as a result.

  • "Ti"

    February 21st, 2013 at 7:28 PM

    Very information. This article gives an in depth understanding of children who are in foster care.

  • Theresa

    February 21st, 2013 at 10:51 PM

    It is very important to be open to children when welcoming them into a new household.they have a history and it may be very different from your own (of anticipation and happy days counting down to an adopted child).to understand and behave accordingly would do the children a world of good because they are often only looking to be understood,to be loved.also the reciprocation to love may not be immediate,bear that in mind.they may take time to open up to you.remain patient and do not stop to empathize.

  • Stacy L

    February 22nd, 2013 at 3:43 AM

    This is a lot of information to digest, even for parents who think that they know there is to know about adopting and fostering older children. This is hard work as well as a huge responsibility that you will take on when you bring children into your home that you have played no role in their past with. There are issues that you may not be told about, that you may never have any kind of access to knwoing about. But if you make this decision to do it then you have to take the good with the bad and just roll with it. There will probably be some hard times and I would suggest having a familiy counselor on hand to help with any potential crises that come up, but it can also be a wonderful experience that you will come to never want to be without, and many times this will outweigh all of the negative feelings.

  • Bruce

    February 22nd, 2013 at 8:47 AM

    Whoa, this makes me feel like an incompetent parent. How is anyone supposed to live up to these standards?

  • Dave

    February 22nd, 2013 at 8:48 AM

    Don’t worry, Bruce. If someone were to wait to have kids until he/she had kids, the population would come to a screeching halt and it would be the end of the human race. It would take so long to be able to accomplish these things in therapy that men and women would be past reproductive age. Perhaps some more reasonable goals could be discussed.

  • Candy

    February 22nd, 2013 at 8:50 AM

    I think all children need to learn consequences for their actions which is what I can only assume the author means by “punishment” here. If a child is acting in a way that is harmful to himself or someone else, it doesn’t matter why he or she is doing it, he or she needs a consequence for it.

  • Fran

    February 22nd, 2013 at 8:54 AM

    ” You cannot simply fix the problem of disobedient behavior through any immediate reaction, but you can sabotage an opportunity for your child’s deep emotional learning and moral-muscle conditioning through giving into your own need to rant and blame.”

    Who said you fix disobedience through ranting and blaming? Maybe the author is trying to fix himself here. I fix disobedience in my children on a daily basis b/c they are kids. However, this never involves ranting and blaming. it involves remaining neutral and handing out discipline the kids new was coming if they chose to break a rule. Dr. Phil said it right-kids need to be able to predict the consequences of their actions with 100% accuracy.

  • Edgar

    February 22nd, 2013 at 8:56 AM

    Peace definitely needs to be our mission, especially when caring for foster/adopted children. These children have been through so much and it is such a gift to be able to provide them with a peaceful home. These kids deserve a break.

  • paula

    February 22nd, 2013 at 10:43 AM

    You kind of have to know all of this going in, before you even decide to make a child from this background a part of your family.

    Why wouldn’t you be better prepared ahead of time before jumping in head first? Do some research, work with some counselors who can best help you navigate some of these experiences that are bound to arise when working with foster children.

    You not only need to think about the fact that you want to make this a safe and happy transition for the child, but also for you and your family too. This is a huge responsibility that you are undertaking by providing for another child, and it has to be the right fir for all involved or it is never going to work.

    I would just encourage anyone who is thinking about this to not only think with your heart but to think with your head so that everyone ends up happy and that there is no more hurt and pain for this child who has likely already experienced far too much of that in his life to have to go through it all over again.

  • dale

    February 22nd, 2013 at 10:53 PM

    I believe some ‘education’ on the child being adopted or brought in to the foster home could help.The new parents can then be better prepared to handle the child and his or her behavior because they know what he or she has been through and any problem areas in particular.

  • Lisa

    February 23rd, 2013 at 4:49 AM

    having fostered several kids in the past, I only wish that the case wrokers and the system would have prepared me a little more for what I amy encounter with the kids. They made it sound like it would be a ll sunshine and roses when it definitively was not that. We had some great kids with us and I would not trade the time and I think all of them have now been placed back with their natural parents and I can only hope that everything is going well for them, but you are always needing a lot more support and guidance from those who handle their cases yet that is something that you very rarely receive.

  • Blake Edwards

    February 23rd, 2013 at 8:51 AM

    Bruce, I used the word “rules” here tongue-in-cheek, to a certain degree. I did not intend this article to present rigid standards, but I did intend to capture a bit of the unseen weight that many foster and adoptive children carry and encourage parents of foster and adoptive children to see beyond moments and behaviors.

    Dave, I would challenge you to share what you may grant as “reasonable goals” for effectively parenting children who have endured such trauma?

    Please keep in mind that this was not an article about specific discipline tools to use with children. I painted broad brushstrokes of trauma, development, and the need for self-discipline in parenting foster and adoptive children.

    Candy, I am an advocate for parents enforcing consequences in many cases when children make poor choices, yet certainly there are effective ways to do so and ineffective ways to do so. There are also constructive ways to do so and destructive ways to do so.

    Fran, I am glad to hear that you have found effective ways to “fix disobedience” without “ranting and blaming” and while “remaining neutral.” I’m not sure that I have ever been so very skilled as this myself. Certainly not consistently so. You pegged me. Yes, I suppose I may write about such topics, in part, to learn and grow, to “fix myself,” as you say. Sometimes I am quick to anger and quick to correction with my daughters, and part of my own journey of parenting is wrestling with such reflexes within myself and learning, always, of new ways, better ways.

    I believe that the spirit of a learner, openness to correction, and self-discipline are qualities fundamentally necessary for successful parenting, particularly with foster and adoptive children.

    Thanks to each one of you who have taken the time to reflect and share your comments. Are there others?

  • chris

    February 23rd, 2013 at 9:01 PM

    one thing I would like to add here is don’t rush with the affection too fast.the child may have come from an environment where any sort of closeness could have been harmful so rushing with affection may scare away the child.take some time to understand the child and then proceed.better to be safe than to frighten the child away!

  • Norah

    February 24th, 2013 at 9:43 AM

    If you are considering this then I urge you to make the choice that is going to be the best for you and your family. If you go into this lightly thinking, sure I can do this, but then you find out that it is harder than you thought that it would be, then everyone is going to get hurt. I think that when you make this choice it has to be something for the whole family to decide and to work on together. You all need to talk and decide if this is going to be something that everyone is willing to work on together, because if the effort is not there with everyone then it will never work.

  • kelly

    February 24th, 2013 at 8:13 PM

    it takes sometime to get to know your new friend,or your new roommate. it is no different with an adopted child. you, the parents and the child come from different backgrounds, different expectations and different definitions of family and a home. therefore it would definitely take some time for you and the child to understand each other, to know about each other’s feelings and to get on the same wavelength.

    I have an adopted son and although things were not too easy initially, we hit it off real well sometime later and are extremely happy as a family now. any relationship needs time and effort, this relationship is no different.

  • angus

    February 25th, 2013 at 3:53 AM

    i was adopted and had the best family ever, but since i was adopted at the fairly old age of eight i have to say that it was not always the easiest thing for any of us but they understood me and made a real effort to give me time when i needed it, space when i needed it and took a real and genuine interest in me and not just the whole adoption process

  • NEL

    February 25th, 2013 at 9:08 PM

    Every parent has to do so much during the developmental stages of a child. now this is only amplified in case of adopted children because they may have experienced grief and trauma and your family is a new environment to them. it only calls for even more effort from the parents. not to sound pessimistic but a foster home needs parenting skills far advanced than other homes and I’m not sure the same is checked for before they are given a foster child’s custody.

  • SY

    February 26th, 2013 at 4:07 AM

    My thoughts are this-
    if you are going to adopt then be a parent
    don’t hold this child at arms length
    be a parent to them in a way that he needs you to
    you might make some mistakes and learn what you need to do better along the way
    but parenting is like that whether your kids are adopted or not

  • Silver Bullet

    February 26th, 2013 at 11:49 PM

    Thank you so much for this piece. Often families are far too excited about the incoming child to even know and acknowledge that the child has a history and could have issues settling in. They forget about all of that and wonder what’s wrong when the child does not reciprocate in the same way.

    I’ve seen this happen in the family of a friend and frankly it’s not fair to the child. Adults need to be aware and matured about this. I will definitely be circulating this and will hopefully help a little child along the way.

  • Blake Edwards

    February 27th, 2013 at 6:00 PM

    Thanks to each of you who has shared comments!

  • FosterCareQandA

    February 27th, 2013 at 6:40 PM

    “Be careful not to compromise what you want most for what you want now.” This should be the mantra for all parents – foster or otherwise! Very wise article. Thank you.

  • Corry R

    November 28th, 2016 at 6:21 AM

    Just excellent work.
    Having lived much of these experiences from professional as well as personal levels (as a nurse therapist, adoptive mother and bereaved mother), l applaud the high standard you set for what is possible. My life’s work of using Therapeutic Art Methods and adjuncts such as NLP, EFT, Therapeutic Touch,Senoi Indian dream work, and resonance in music therapy, there are many ways to help the child in all of us to communicate effectively those issues that need healing so we might all transcend the limitations of the physical experience. Children, even those deeply wounded, do this eloquently when given a safe place and rapport has been established. A child’s picture is indeed a thousand words. It is on this turf we truly experience the bonding Oneness of a walk on holy ground.

  • Ruby

    June 27th, 2020 at 8:59 AM

    Thanks for shearing rules knowledge about foster children its really help all those people who want to be a part of fostering services and understand foster care better way.

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