It 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- Withdrawn/depressed mood
- Lack of understanding regarding consequences
- Physical aggression towards others or animals
- Sexually acting out
- Lack of impulse control
- Difficulty connecting with others
- Property destruction
- Emotional sensitivity
- Harming themselves
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 that they are scared of their foster parents, but it could mean that they are terrified of being in a new environment and not knowing what to expect next. Based on their previous histories, it makes 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 be able 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 that 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.
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 when 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 that 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, the child will 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.
© Copyright 2010 by Carmen Sample, LCSW, LAC, therapist in Longmont, Colorado. 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.