Why Foster Parents Loom Large in Trauma-Informed Care

multicultural father and sonI work within the world of foster care. Kids we serve endure complex effects related to trauma from abuse, neglect, sometimes fetal drug/alcohol exposure, and the impacts of early development in a chaotic home environment.

Foster kids have complex needs, and we facilitate a number of treatment services. I call our multilayered approach “treatment scaffolding.” In other words, we orchestrate a symphony of support to mitigate risk and catalyze healing.

Can Parenting Be ‘Therapeutic’?

One of the most critical aspects of treatment—and this is no small truth, yet it is frequently minimized and even undermined within the foster care industrial complex—is the therapeutic care foster parents provide.

At the core of all parenting is the fundamental challenge to nurture both attachment and autonomy. Children need to learn how to bond emotionally with others, navigate appropriate boundaries, and self-soothe difficult emotions.

When foster parents intervene in ways that nurture confidence, responsibility, and positive social behavior, their efforts can powerfully impact a child’s development and therapeutic progress.

Treatment Is a Story Unfolding

As a foster care treatment director, I encourage creative and playful parenting, confront misguided beliefs about foster kids’ presenting symptoms, and cast vision encouraging foster parents to see a larger story in motion.

Recently, I sat and chatted with a foster teen girl who shared with me that her younger sister often lies to the foster parents. She told me that the foster parents immediately call her out on her false statements and stories and that this perpetuates a vicious cycle. She explained, “I always let my sister tell me all those lies, and she tells me everything that she doesn’t feel safe to tell [the foster parents]. She doesn’t trust to open up to them.”

I asked, “If she trusts you and she tells you everything, why does she lie to you?” She shared with me that the foster parent “doesn’t understand that when my sister is telling those lies, she just isn’t ready to open up yet. It’s her way of making sure someone is safe before she goes and lets them into her little world. If I am there for her and listen to what she has to say, even if it’s not true, she knows I’m listening and that I love her, and pretty soon she always stops with the lies and starts telling me the truth. That’s when she opens up a lot to me and talks to me about things that have happened to her and tells me how she’s really feeling.”

As I listened intently to the profound insight of this caring sister, I wished I had a recording I could share with our foster parents in training. Therapeutic care should seek first to nurture trust and broaden understanding; only then comes the carefully directed mission of increasing personal ownership and accountability. Often a therapist is well-positioned to coach foster parents through this gauntlet. Certainly, foster parents also need additional supports.

When a foster parent engages courageously in truly therapeutic care, they become in many cases the most vital and effective member of the child’s treatment team. Therapeutic relationships with foster parents can act as a catalyst for healing changes in patterns of thought, emotion, and behavior, family relationships, and social decision-making.

One of the most important components of training that I provide to foster parents consists of reality-grounding principles that stretch their expectations and practical skills that prepare them to be disciplined.

Two of the simplest principles are often the most meaningful to foster parents:

“It’s going to get worse before it gets better.”

Providing treatment is helpful over the course of time, but it cannot remedy developmental deficits in the near-term. Especially when early childhood trauma has occurred, “you cannot,” as it has been said, “un-ring that bell.” In fact, in many cases treatment services such as therapy bring up emotionally difficult issues that stir up raw emotion.

“It’s not about you.”

Complex trauma results in chronic anxiety—internalized as depression, externalized as defiance, or both. Children who have endured trauma may, consequently, withdraw or explode as they navigate difficult emotional territory, and they need safe relationships where they can test trust and learn whether they will be accepted unconditionally through their grief, anger, and healing.

Ask the Right Questions

In foster care, especially in treatment foster care programs like mine where we serve children, teens, and young adults with intensive needs, we often focus on the negative effects of trauma and the defensive strategies foster parents can engage in to respond well to the most difficult behaviors and de-escalate crisis scenarios.

This type of training is critical, but with so much focus on posttraumatic stress at the root of problems, we so easily miss the enormous degree of posttraumatic resilience and strength showing up so regularly and beautifully.

Heather Forbes, a prominent advocate for therapeutic parenting in the field of foster care and adoption, frequently tells foster and adoptive parents that the paradigm for parenting a child who has experienced trauma must completely change, that we get the wrong answers because we ask the wrong question.

She said the question we ask is: “How can I change this child’s behavior?”

She cautioned that as long as we ask that question, we will get nothing but a vicious cycle of power struggle, distancing, and further deterioration of attachment.

She said the two best “right” questions are: (1) “What is driving this child’s behavior?” and (2) “What can I do to improve my relationship with this child?”

When we approach those two questions as our starting point, we find ourselves better prepared to encounter and facilitate opportunities for healing of trauma and change of behavior to begin.

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  • Leave a Comment
  • Brandi

    August 6th, 2014 at 12:16 PM

    I am currently fostering a 6 year old whome we want to make a permanent part of our family and adopt but the state where I live, I am not sure if this is true other places, but our state believes firmly in trying to reunite children with their birth famileis above all else. This means that this sweet little boy may have to go back “home” to drug addicted parents with real issues and he has been through this three times already. I am sickened to think of losing him but I knew going in that this could be this way. It makes me wish that the parents will just sign over their legal parental rights but with this family I don’t see this happening. Stay tuned for more of the saga.

  • James

    August 6th, 2014 at 3:18 PM

    Hats off to those families who step up and take care of a child who is not even their own, and who do it so well.
    There are many many children who have been left by their birth parents that the need for foster families is critical, but I think that the message that is out there is all gloom and doom.
    yes, the system does fail at times to look out for the best interest of the child, but even if you can make a difference for just a small amount of time, I think that you would see that this stays with these children for a long time and they remember that even when things look the most dreary that there is still someone out there who will care for them.

  • trevor

    August 7th, 2014 at 12:03 PM

    The issues that come up with many foster kids can be both compelling and complicated. Be prepared to take the good with the bad because there are going to be things that you hear about that will make you cringe and then there will be things that make your heart sing.
    Again, you have to be prepared to hear them both and to see it through.

  • Ellie

    August 8th, 2014 at 10:50 AM

    This could be the one time in some child’s life that they are reciving real parenting.

  • NoNa

    August 11th, 2014 at 3:17 PM

    You have to be super sensitive to what they are ready to share and the thimgs that they have inside that they sstill wish to keep private.

    We all have those things that we are not ready or willing to share, and that is okay and these children should be made to understand that this is alright for them too. I know that you want to help in any way large or small that you can but please know that you need to do that on their time frame and not yours.

    When they feel safe and comfortable then maybe then they will share some of the things that they have experienced, or maybe it will be enough for them knowing that all is safe right now and for right now that is all that they need.

  • Christopher

    August 12th, 2014 at 4:33 PM

    How much training of these parents really goes into the system? I would hope a great deal but would actually suspect the opposite to be true :(

  • Blake Griffin Edwards

    August 14th, 2014 at 8:38 AM

    Thank you for these comments.

    Christopher, foster parents do receive a great deal of training that is fairly standardized prior to becoming licensed, and they must maintain a host of core re-trainings in specified areas on an annual basis. In Texas, for example, they must receive a minimum of 30 hours of foster care related training a year, and, of course, individual agencies provide ongoing support, coaching, and training.

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