Every year in America, thousands of foster parents take in tens of thousands of children in the foster system because of abuse or neglect. These children have a range of intense needs. For decades cognitive scientists and parents have been studying how to help these children adjust and function successfully in society.
And every parent can learn from the research.
Humans can grow and gain emotional well-being even after years of neglect and abuse. And while this structure does need to be rigorous and have clear boundaries, it does not and should not be strict and punitive. Actually, strict and punitive measures are barriers to emotional well being and bonding.
The most important thing is to build trust and a strong foundation between parent and child from which all future gains will grow.
Many of these ideas are collected in the book The Connected Child by Karyn B. Purvis PhD, David R. Cross PhD, and Wendy Lyons Sunshine.
Know your child’s story and respond appropriately
Understanding the specific deprivations and trauma your adopted children experienced is one key to appropriate parenting. This begins with knowing if their mother abused alcohol or drugs during pregnancy.
Additionally, you need to know if your children were deprived of physical and emotional affection before coming to you.
These ket pieces of information will let you know how to respond to certain specific behaviors.
Understanding this story can let you know why a child is angry, or suddenly shy, or bursts out crying. Their emotions – even the ones that seem targeted at you – are signals to their fear responses. Searching their past for clues can help you respond appropriately.
Offer your scared, angry, or totally withdrawn child understanding and patience. And reassure them about your permanence and security.
Develop clear communication skills and not strict discipline
Many abused or neglected children have not learned health social interactions. They will need to learn good communication skills. This can happen through very specific steps.
Eye contact: practice getting down to their level and asking them to make eye contact with you.
Appropriate speech: model calm, friendly talking, and appropriate body language. It might even be necessary to remind them of the importance of taking turns in conversation or other specific skills such as how to communicate through words rather than actions.
Develop vocabulary: One reason all children, abused or not, struggle with feeling connected is because of language deficiencies. Specifically teaching the language of emotions helps your child clearly communicate their wants and needs, leaving no confusion. You can facilitate this with visual aids like a feelings chart.
Family values: Model and teach your family values. “We don’t throw things in this house. Tell me what made you upset and we will solve this problem together.”
Teaching your child to communicate with words will help when they act out, but won’t prevent every reaction. Sometimes they will act out of fear, anger, and mistrust. Their amygdalas will respond before they can prevent it.
In these moments, choosing to provide a punishment is counterproductive. If they get punished for reacting, they will learn to distrust you. After all, they couldn’t help their reaction, and often it was as frightening or surprising to them as it was to you.
Instead, provide a safe space and time to calm down, then work with them to understand what happened. Then provide a safer, calmer way to react the next time they are in that same situation or feel those same feelings.
How can I correct their behavior?
You still need to have clear boundaries and consequences. If your child is being mean to other children in a social setting, you can’t excuse it. You must take the time to intervene, identify the misbehavior, describe the right behavior, check for understanding, and explain what will happen if the same behavior is repeated.
This consequence can’t be a physical consequence like spanking, but should be in line with the level of misbehavior. If they are playing with blocks and not sharing, the consequence for repeating this is that they won’t be allowed to play with the blocks for a short period of time.
It is important that you are willing to follow through with the consequence you describe. This is also part of building trust. You can’t be permissive around the things you said you would do, or else you undermine all your work and teach them you can’t be trusted.
Finally, when your child gets it right, by sharing a few moments after the discussion, provide appropriate praise.
Instead of a time out, Purvis suggests a “time in” where the child sits near you while they cool off. This shows you are still their ally, but that the boundaries and rules are important.
Are you struggling with a foster child or just looking for an outlet for the stress of parenting? You likely will benefit from talking to a licensed therapist like Sakina Issa. This includes small group conversations with you and your child together.
Luckily, these conversations can happen discreetly and by appointment using the same tools you have grown comfortable using at work, like Zoom or GoToMeeting. Just click the button in the upper right hand corner.
Continue reading the blog, or maybe subscribe to receive one in your mailbox each week.