Any time you are dealing with children, you are likely to encounter challenging behaviour from time to time. When you open your home to foster children, however, you may find that problematic behaviour reaches a new level. Even if you are an experienced parent and have raised children of your own, it can be difficult to know how to handle a foster child who is displaying challenging behaviour. You want to be kind and welcoming, providing unconditional support, but behavioural issues in foster children can sometimes be extreme. You may be left feeling frustrated and overwhelmed, but it is important to try to understand what the child has been through, and learning how to deal with their challenging behaviour is an important part of being a foster carer.
Why do children play up? All children act out sometimes, and it is part of normal childhood development; in the case of foster children, they may simply be reacting to traumatic experiences of their past or the overwhelming feeling of having their life upended and having to start over in a new home. Sometimes, challenging behaviour is a coping mechanism that helps a child feel safe, and it’s up to the adults in the child’s life to redirect and help find better ways of dealing with negative emotions. Many foster children come from backgrounds of neglect, physical or sexual abuse, parental mental health or addition issues, or ongoing abandonment. Understandably, these conditions can lead to problematic behaviours, including physical aggression, sexually acting out, lack of impulse control, property destruction, lack of connection with others, or self-harm. The child may withdraw, feeling depressed, may be extremely emotionally sensitive, or may be angry. Unaccustomed to the stability of a comforting, loving, secure environment, children can seem lost or distrustful. Patience is a big part of being a successful foster carer, and if you can keep in mind the child’s history, you may be better able to understand what you are witnessing in terms of behavioural problems in foster children. Here’s how you can help them overcome these challenging behaviours.
Create a nurturing environment
Often, children act out because they are afraid. While this doesn’t mean your foster child is afraid of you, it could be that the child is scared of being in a new environment and not knowing what to expect. Make sure your home is a safe and comfortable place for your foster child, with stable routines and firm boundaries, where the child’s needs are met, and the child is heard and protected. Often, children behave badly because their needs are not being met, so make a mental checklist to tick off when you are dealing with challenging behaviour. Is the child feeling sick? Has she had enough sleep? Is he hungry? Is something emotionally upsetting the child? Has there been a change in the routine? Sometimes, challenging behaviour is a way of communicating need.
Set clear rules
Set firm boundaries, gentle enough to protect the child’s emotional needs but strong enough to provide a sense of security. All children need boundaries to feel secure, but this is particularly crucial for children whose backgrounds have been unstable. Make sure your foster child understands your expectations, answering any questions about the rules honestly, and making it clear that safety and the child’s wellbeing are your primary concern. Keep the lines of communication open, and be aware that children from chaotic backgrounds may need extra support when they are trying to adjust to new rules.
Lead by example
Make sure you are not responding to the child with misbehaviour of your own. It’s perfectly natural to feel stress in difficult parenting situations, but you must respond calmly, in order to model the behaviour that you want to see in the child. This requires self-awareness of your own triggers and issues, so that you can make positive parenting choices instead of reacting out of your own negative emotions. Let your foster child see you managing your emotions in a healthy way, and talk about strategies for dealing with difficult situations and feelings.
Give your child choices
When children are allowed to make choices, it gives them a feeling of control and a sense of ownership of their own decisions. This is important, because it helps them feel safe and allows them to develop a sense of accountability. It’s not hard to allow children to choose: you decide the options and let them pick between them. For example, you might give them two options for dinner, or offer several ideas for playtime activities and let them choose. You can also give a child the opportunity to choose when to do something, like whether to take a shower first and then do homework or the other way around.
Praise good behaviour
Positive reinforcement can go a long way in preventing misbehaviour. Catch the child doing what is expected and point out the behaviour, offering praise for things like playing quietly, using good manners, or following directions. Make sure to be specific, because this will help your foster child to better understand your expectations. Even when you are giving instructions, keep it light and positive. Instead of saying, “No television until you pick up your toys,” for instance, you might say, “As soon as you pick up your toys, you can watch television.” Framing things in a positive way and offering praise for a job well done will help reinforce the behaviours you want to see.
Try using ‘time in’ instead of ‘time out’
Getting a child to switch of a computer game because they are being verbally aggressive or swearing by telling them that they need to spend time with you- watching a favourite film or doing some baking. This is not ‘spoiling’ the child; they have already had their sanction (the computer game is switched off) so do not give them another sanction by leaving them to ‘brood’ in their room. Time in shows the child that you still care for them but the behaviour they were displaying was not acceptable.
Deal with aggression calmly
When your foster child is behaving aggressively, focus on the meaning behind the behaviour. Stay calm, and let the child know that you are on his or her side, willing to work together as a team to deal with negative emotions. Try to give your child a safe space in which to express negative feelings, and be patient, encouraging the child to use words to express these emotions.
Seek professional help
Your foster care agency is equipped to provide you with professional foster child help and other resources to support you on your journey as a foster carer. Make the most of the resources available to you, and don’t be afraid to ask for help; no one expects you to be the perfect foster carer or to adjust to the “new normal” overnight. Having a support system in place is crucial for foster carers, and your agency will help make sure you have the support you need.
Are you interested in becoming a Foster Carer?
At Acorn Fostering Services, we provide good quality foster placements for children and young people, and we are always looking for foster carers who can offer children sensitivity and care. An Ofsted approved and registered independent fostering agency, we are based in Leicester and provide fostering agency services throughout the East and West Midlands and surrounding Counties. If you think you have the life experience and qualities that would help you care for children of all types and you want to learn more about foster caring, call us on 0116 216 6040, or contact us through our website.