Understanding Difficult Behavior: For Foster and Adoptive Parents

GoodTherapy | Understanding Difficult Behavior: For Foster and Adoptive ParentsIt is common for children and adolescents in foster care and adoptive situations to exhibit challenging behaviors, some of which can be severe. It is equally common for parents providing care to these children to become upset and overwhelmed by what they see.

Before parents reach the point where they themselves may have a behavioral episode, I always remind them to remember the environment that their child came from. By remembering what this child was experiencing during their formative years, we can better understand the behaviors we are seeing now.

Understanding a Child’s History

Most likely, a child entering foster care is coming from a situation that may have consisted of severe neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse, orphanage care, parental mental health issues, parents with addiction problems, or ongoing abandonment, to name a few. As a result, it makes sense that we see similar behaviors in children that they most likely experienced from their parents. These include:

  • Withdrawn or depressed mood
  • Lack of understanding regarding consequences
  • Physical aggression towards others or animals
  • Sexually acting out
  • Anger
  • Lack of impulse control
  • Difficulty connecting with others
  • Property destruction
  • Emotional sensitivity
  • Self-harm

Because these children did not have a comforting, loving, and secure environment as their “stable base,” they can appear lost, distrustful, and angry. These children are not “bad” or “damaged” like they may appear initially. Instead, they are simply having a normal reaction to the negative past experiences of their lives. Because of this, it is important to have a clear understanding of your child’s history in order to better understand what you are seeing now.

By gaining a deep understanding of your child’s experiences, you will be more competent as a parent and better able to work with the child in a calm and therapeutic manner. The good news is that these children can and will change with the security, warmth, and structure they can receive from a positive and therapeutic parent.

Creating a Therapeutic Environment

One of the most common burnout factors I experience with parents is lack of emotional reciprocity from the child, accompanied by destructive and targeted behaviors. We must remember that children and adolescents often “act out” when they are scared. This doesn’t necessarily mean they are scared of their foster parents, but it could mean they are terrified of being in a new environment and not knowing what to expect next.

Based on their history, it could make sense that the child would expect the worse and view everyone in their life as a potential threat. At that point, it doesn’t matter whether their foster or adoptive parent has the best intentions, a nice house with their own room, supportive siblings, or the best pet. What matters in that moment are the parent’s skills to create a therapeutic environment for that child to be able to succeed and thrive.

What does it mean to have a “therapeutic environment?” It does not mean you have a perfect family without any natural conflict. Instead, therapeutic in this context describes the positive and directed manner with which the parent is able to respond to situations. It is the response that determines the success of the intervention. In order to have an appropriate response, the parent must be self-aware enough of their own triggers and issues to be able to know whether they are responding to their children’s behaviors out of their own insecurities and fear or out of intentional positive parenting that will benefit the child.

This process of self-awareness can be quite a feat in itself. It is a critical step for parents to undertake when working with children that have trauma histories and need a little extra support. It may be necessary for the parent to take a self inventory of their own issues, parenting values, and childhood experiences that impacted who they are today. By taking this inventory, the parent can self-reflect on what responses they received from their own parent when they had a scraped knee, perfect report card, or just a bad day. By taking a self-inventory, the parent can understand where their own gut reactions come from in stressful parenting situations, and where some of their own learned behavior may have been developed.

Therapeutic parenting is about setting firm boundaries in a manner that is gentle enough to appeal to the child’s emotional needs and developmental stage, and strong enough to ensure felt security.

Basic Parenting Skills for Adopted and Foster Children

These basic therapeutic parenting skills are important in successfully responding to situations, as well as being proactive:

  • Calm tone and facial expressions
  • Use of positive rewards for desired behavior
  • No use of sarcasm, physical punishment, or other negative measures
  • Understanding and open attitude
  • Clear rules and expectations
  • Implementing firm structure and boundaries
  • Consistency in rule-implementation and consequences
  • Follow through, follow through, follow through every time

Therapeutic parenting is about setting firm boundaries in a manner that is gentle enough to appeal to the child’s emotional needs and developmental stage, and strong enough to ensure felt security. Following through with what you say you are going to do is also critically important. This teaches the child that they can trust what you say. They learn by your modeling that there are consequences for choices they make. By implementing positive and therapeutic parenting techniques, the parent will feel safer in their environment and so will the child. The hard part is implementation—it is much easier said than done.

In addition, there will inevitably be times you don’t implement these techniques as you would like to. When you slip as a parent it is important to acknowledge it. Apologize if you did something wrong or explain what happened. These “mistakes” are opportunities for you to demonstrate that you are human and you accept accountability—a social skill your child will benefit from having as well.

The best thing a parent can do when their child engages in this behavior is to remain calm and consistent. By doing so, the parent creates a safe space for the child to know that despite their behaviors, they are cared about in a consistent and structured environment. It is likely that a new foster or adoptive child will not show the love and affection that a parent is seeking. It is also likely that the child may be resentful of the situation and not act or appear appreciative of the parent’s efforts. When this occurs, it is important for you as the parent to remember, “It isn’t about me.” Use this as your mantra during behavioral episodes. Your job is not to save them, but to help guide them in their own journey of growth and self-awareness.

Persevering Through the Process

In the beginning period of a placement, which can last years, it is common for there to be steep peaks and valleys of behavior, usually quite frequently for the first year, at least. However, if the parent can stick with it and persevere through the difficult behaviors, the reward can be great. Over time, with consistency and warmth, a child can build trust and a sense of security with themselves and the rest of the world. The parent will start to see more mild peaks and valleys of behaviors, until a baseline is eventually reached—not without the occasional slip up, of course!

With a greater understanding and self-awareness on part of the parent, behavior will come to be an expected and natural part of a process, which can result in a child who has the opportunity for a life they wouldn’t have been able to live before. In my opinion, witnessing that type of positive change in a growing individual is one of the most rewarding things you can do. Good luck!

Parents who are struggling with managing the behavior of an adopted or foster child may find individual or family therapy helpful. Reach out to a licensed, compassionate therapist here.

© Copyright 2010 by Carmen Sample, LCSW, LAC. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

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

  • Leave a Comment
  • Leo

    April 15th, 2010 at 6:52 PM

    it is almost always a forgone conclusion that a child under foster care has seen and experienced nasty things in his/her earlier years and this calls for all the more greater care and love towards the child from the foster parents.they need to take the professionals’ advice in this regard and be nice to th child and keep him/her away from things/people/places that may remind the child about his.her past.

  • Robyn E

    April 16th, 2010 at 3:10 AM

    I don’t get it- you go into these situations knowing there may be problems from the past that have not bene resolved for the child. How would anyone expect that the child might mot have some issues dealing with stuff? That’s naive and selfish of you to think that if you go into foster or adoptive situations.

  • pp

    May 11th, 2018 at 7:21 AM


  • Carer

    November 21st, 2018 at 3:04 PM

    I agreed. Very rude negative comments and do not help

  • Andrea F.

    May 14th, 2019 at 5:33 AM

    I also agree – very rude comment. If people care enough to take on a child with a traumatic past, the last thing they need is someone on a high horse making negative and unhelpful comments.

  • Carmen Sample, MSW, LSW

    April 16th, 2010 at 9:38 AM

    Parents typically go into foster care and adoption with the best intentions, though it can be very difficult to remember those intentions when the child is acting out. I hope this article is a helpful reminder for parents to take a deep breath and remember their purpose as a therapeutic provider when they find themselves feeling stressed by their child’s behaviors.

  • Chelsea

    November 22nd, 2010 at 9:20 AM

    Your list of parenting skills to put in practice is really good. Consistency along with kindness goes a long way. As someone who was adopted, I admire people who foster care and adopt from the foster care system. It can’t be easy, especially when the ideal is a Brady Bunch family right out of the gate.

  • KB

    September 15th, 2015 at 3:00 PM

    I think this is a fabulous reminder. I am a foster parent and although I love on and value the children placed with us, we are human and an endless supply of patience is unfortunately not there. Taking a child into your home on a whim and then adjusting to that child’s place in the home and presenting behaviors can be very difficult, even with knowing how hard it has been for that child. Not only is the child adjusting and experiencing loss, but the foster family is adjusting and experiencing loss as well. There is no such thing as normalcy. We have had our foster adopt son for almost 8 months and just when I think we have all adjusted finally, there’s another uphill battle and I realize we aren’t there yet. Thank you for this article. To acknowledge that this adjustment period could take at least a couple years, even for a 3 1/2 year old is actually refreshing. Even in the midst of his destroying items when he’s angry or him saying horrid things you wouldn’t expect a 3 yr old to say, or deliberately turning his head away when I’m telling him how much I love him… It makes me realize we aren’t doing anything wrong and bonding is still happening – we are just a family adjusting to and growing with each other and this will take a very long while, for all of us.

  • MP

    September 14th, 2016 at 9:01 PM

    This article was so very eye opening for us. We have a 3 year old who has been with us for a month, and tonight I was at my wit’s end. You have let me know that there is no possible way for us to have “gotten there” in such a short time. We have been holding her to rules that, at this point, aren’t possible for her. I have just now realized that I have been dooming her to fail, just so that I can justify my own anger, and feelings of failure. This was very helpful, because I was truly ready to throw in the towel – which led me to this article. So thank you. I do have one issue to address. We rarely get any kind of good grasp of our child’s history. So understanding her history isn’t completely possible. Otherwise, this article was spot on.

  • Patricia

    October 14th, 2016 at 6:55 PM

    I found the article helpful to some extent, as a new foster parent, I am at a loss in some situations. My foster children have come from a very bad situation, where they were severely abused by their grandparents who were in essence the parents to them for the majority of their lives up to now. They have never been taught any type of manners , or taught how to act in public. They were never allowed the basic freedoms that normal children experience in life, food was withheld when they would not do what they were told to do. They were the housekeepers , and yard workers for them. (little slaves) , it is sad for me to say that the people that did all these horrible things to them were related to me, I became their last straw , they had no one who would take them when everything came to a head, it is a challenge daily but that’s what we do , we get through each day one day at a time. We treat each and every situation one at a time, I have two of the four children and the other two are with close family , near us so they can see each other frequently. They are loved and held close to us, we are doing our best to make them feel safe and loved. I would not recommend this for everyone , if you don’t have the capacity to ride out the stormy times and work through things then foster care is not for you. They have enough baggage to deal with , without dealing with any other drama, My girls have trouble understanding boundries but we listen to each other and talk it out. We never go to bed before that is done. They are a blessing and we are blessed for having them in our life. I would hope they will be returned to their mother or father one day , but that is not in the cards for 2 of them. Out of 3 men , only one showed up to claim his children. Only one stepped up to show his daughters he cared. Hopefully things will work out. Thank you.

  • Dianne

    July 3rd, 2017 at 4:04 AM

    This is a good read. Becoming a foster parent is not an easy task to take. If you are not aware of how to be a responsible foster parent, your child or children will surely suffer. Considering therapies like this is very important to maintain the nourishment of you and your foster children healthy and fruitful at all the times. In addition to this, a lot of fostering West Midlands agencies offer proper training and ongoing instructions to keep all foster parents updated and skilled. Try this now: childcarebureau.co.uk/fostering-west-midlands.htm .

  • faith

    May 11th, 2018 at 7:17 AM

    i am in high school this site helped me with my research paper that i am writing. i hope to persuade others to adopt

  • Karen M.

    August 28th, 2018 at 8:07 PM

    My step children (they were adopted when they were 2 and 3 when my husband and his ex wife got them. They fostered them because they were friends with the mother who was sent to prison for drugs. They eventually adopted them so that there was no chance of them ever getting Seperated. The kids are now 9 and 7. They are homeschooled and their mom has labeled them “trauma children “ and she is a “trauma mama” who HAS to homeschool them ( even though the kids have expressed that they want to go to public school). Can a parent hold children back because the parent has to be a “caregiver” and has to be that “trauma mama”… my step children are smart and they have no curriculum at their “home school”. Their “trauma mama” says she isn’t worried that Sarah who is 9 can’t read. She says that she thinks teaching the kids about Jesus and god is more important than Sarah learning to read. I feel like she isn’t helping my stepchildren but she is actually hurting and holding them back from growing.

  • Sherry

    March 11th, 2020 at 8:40 AM

    What do you do when you have done all this and the child continues to make false accusations that could ruin your life? We have tried everything and nothing works and now our reputation our livelihood could be in jeopardy. I knew this would not be easy but I must always protect my family.

  • Emmi

    August 16th, 2020 at 10:24 AM

    I found this article helpful as well as many of the comments. Gaining custody of my niece who has experienced horrible things and has mental issues has been a challenge. Especially since I have much of the same background and mental challenges. I was her last option as far as family goes. I struggle with her behaviors and every day is like a clean slate for her. Shr has to be told every single detail of every step/chore daily. It is frustrating. However, this child needs a safe, stable and abuse free environment. I just wish I could engage in more patience so that she may grow to a productive member of society and able to make it on her own when the time comes. I know I’m not the best but certainly not the worst. Most importantly children with background issues need to feel safe and loved and at least i can give her that.

  • Lee

    May 15th, 2022 at 3:37 PM

    I’m new to all this also having a 3 yr old which is my grandsons and his brothers one of them is 6months old the other is 1yr old they all come from a bad environment the mother has mental issues history of abuse. These kids are traumatized I’m glad I read this article and I changed my mind I had already lost my patios d all but I will try my best to give them a better life and to love them as much as they deserve to to be loved!

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