Foster care children can have an array of behavioral problems and specific psychiatric disorders. The process of being taken out of one’s home and separated from parents and siblings is stressful, even in the absence of a specific traumatic event. — Glen R. Elliott, MD, PhD
As a foster parent, all you want to do is provide a safe, supportive and loving household for your foster child. The fact that you have chosen to become a foster parent shows that you are a very caring person and have a lot of love to offer. Sometimes though no matter how much love you give, it can be quite difficult to connect with your foster child. You may find yourself continuously putting yourself out there, trying to connect but getting nothing but a brick wall, anger or fear in return. This can be extremely upsetting and I can certainly understand if you’re ready to throw the towel in…
But don’t give up!
Due to the unique environment of a foster relationship and the experiences foster children have been through before coming to your home, there could be a number of reasons why you just aren’t connecting. Before you can even try to connect, it is important to work out why your foster child may be reacting a particular way. Then, you can look at ways to get around this.
From children being separated from parents at the Mexican border, to the rising rates of anxiety and depression in children, to the growing research on how adverse childhood events (ACEs) lead to symptoms of trauma, there is no denying children are suffering. — Hilary Jacobs Hendel LCSW
Understanding their background:
First, it is very important to understand the background of your foster child. They may have been neglected, abused physically, mentally, sexually or had other traumatic experiences. This is certainly not something you should bring up with them (unless they decide to bring it up themselves and want to talk about it) as often they want to “forget” or “block out” these experiences as their way of coping. So you may not have all the ins and outs of this information. What is important though is to know is that all of the things above impact the development of attachment and this will likely be what is causing the difficulties connecting with your foster child.
So what is attachment?
All parents have responsibility to nurture both attachment and autonomy. Children need to learn how to bond emotionally with others, navigate appropriate boundaries, and self-soothe difficult emotions. — Blake Griffin Edwards LMFT
Attachment is the relationship that each
a person develops with their caregiver as they grow through infancy. As this is the first person we interact with in life it sets the tone of how we interact in all our other relationships. If the attachment is healthy, then later in life we are able to connect well with others, if not, we may tend to be guarded and find it difficult to trust others.
What is considered a healthy form of attachment is called “secure attachment”. This is where the child is attached enough to the caregiver to become upset when separated from them, but calms down once the caregiver returns and comforts them and still feels the confidence to explore and play with other children while the caregiver is present. A secure attachment is developed through the caregiver being consistently available and responsive to the child’s needs while not being overbearing. It provides the belief to the child that they are worthwhile and valuable.
Unhealthy attachment styles develop when the caregiver neglects the child or is inconsistently responsive to the child’s needs. Due to this, the child develops the unconscious understanding that others cannot be relied upon and they may develop strategies such as being emotionally guarded towards others to try and manage this.
What can I do?
The amazing thing is that if your foster child has an unhealthy attachment style you can help change this. Just by providing a safe home, food and basic care you are already showing this child that you are consistent and are there to care for them. Other ways that you can help them connect with you include:
- Spend time getting to know them, what do or don’t they like?
- Plan activities around their interests, show them you don’t have an ultimatum, you just want to spend time with them.
- Be consistent, set up a routine in the home and stick to this.
- Set boundaries in the home and give them an understanding of your expectations. Make sure you stick to this. Although you may feel cruel at the time, by providing appropriate boundaries you can actually help the child feel more secure and cared for.
- If they are open to it, use safe touch to calm them or comfort them.
- Is there anything you can teach them that will help them in the future? For example, can you teach them how to cook? If so, spend time doing this.
- Above all, know that consistency and reliability is the key.
Know that just because they might pull away, become angry or upset when you try and interact with them, that this is just their way of protecting themselves. So far, their caregivers have let them down, so they are scared to be open to anyone else. No matter what happens, try not to give up or pull away from yourself as this just reinforces their belief that eventually, everyone will let them down.
If you are having significant difficulties and feel as though nothing is helping it may be beneficial to seek counseling. However, try and make this an activity that you can do together so the child does not feel as though they are being ‘palmed off’ to the counselor. Contact your GP for further information on accessing counseling.
To read more on connecting with your foster child and attachment, please see the links below.