Most 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the very abuse they have endured or other behavioral reflections of unresolved trauma—nearly always carrying some outdated, adaptive purpose once essential to their survival.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:
- 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).
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.”
- Edwards, B. (2011). Fighting, family, and finding peace. Relevant Magazine: http://www.relevantmagazine.com/life/relationship/blog/26757-fighting-family-and-finding-peace.
- Perry, B.D. (2001). Bonding and attachment in maltreated children: Consequences of emotional neglect in childhood. Caregiver Education Series. Houston: ChildTrauma Academy.
- 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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