It’s a reality that faces some 800,000 American children a year: their home environment is no longer safe or appropriate for their own well-being.
A child welfare caseworker gets called in to see if the reports of abuse or neglect are legitimate. If there is sufficient concern regarding the health and/or safety of the child, a court will rule that the child be temporarily removed from the home.
Fortunately, there is a group of unsung heroes called “foster parents” who sign up to provide a safe place for children in foster care until their case can be resolved. Parenting a foster child, however, presents issues that differ from those when parenting biological children and it is important for foster parents to be realistic when taking in a foster child.
Not only do kids suffer trauma from the circumstances that led to foster care in the first place, but they also experience the grief of being separated from their primary family. It may be hard to believe but even when the abuse and neglect is bad, that’s what their normal looks like, so when they are taken away from their primary family, that to them is more traumatic than the conditions that led to their removal.
Foster kids are six times as likely as other children to have behavioral problems, according to a study published in the journal Pediatrics. Research conducted by Harvard Medical School and Casey Family Programs found that former foster kids developed post-traumatic stress disorder at almost twice the rate of combat veterans.
Foster families are in a unique position to help children in their care by providing a safe and stable home.
Foster parents face unique challenges when caring for foster children and youth in their homes. Because most regulating agencies prohibit foster parents from using corporal punishment, it is important for them to have positive parenting skills.
There is no need to have two sets of rules for disciplining which can only lead to children feeling they are being treated differently. These parenting techniques work equally well with foster children and biological children:
Redirection. Distract a child’s undesirable behavior with redirection. For example, if a child is focused on pestering another child, try interesting the child in a different activity in another room or engage the child in performing an activity together with you.
Ignore the behavior. Make sure that you are ignoring a behavior that is not a danger to the child or others. Ignoring a fire-starting behavior, for example, is not a wise decision. But it would not be difficult to ignore a child that sucks his thumb, refuses to pick up his socks, or flush the toilet. It’s wise to pick your battles.
Timeout. Timeout is the practice of placing a child in another room or on a timeout bench for a set number of minutes. A good rule of thumb is the child’s age plus one minute. This provides time to diffuse the situation and the child to “chill out.” Remember that this may not always be a good choice for children with attachment issues.
Talk with the child about their feelings. Help a child understand why they are acting out. A child slamming around the breakfast cereal bowls may be feeling anger. The child that is sulking may be feeling sad. Many traumatized children may be detached from their emotions and not fully able to identify what they are feeling or why. Help assign feelings with discussions.
Earning privileges and losing privileges. Help children see how they can earn privileges with the right choices and lose privileges with wrong choices. It is how the world works most of the time. Earning or losing privileges can also be the earning or loss of an important object or an opportunity or privilege.
When specific behavior problems arise, work with the foster child’s guardian, case manager, therapist, and other caretakers to identify the best strategies for intervention. Consistency is often the key to helping children in foster care learn the skills they need to manage their behavior.