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Years ago, I chatted with a foster teen who shared with me that her younger sister often lied to their foster parents. She told me that the foster parents regularly and swiftly called her sister out on her lies—from stories about past events or what happened earlier that day—and that this perpetuates a vicious cycle. She explained, “I always let my sister tell me all those lies, but then she also tells me true stuff, everything that she doesn’t feel safe to tell [the foster parents]. She doesn’t trust to open up to them.”
I asked, “But why does she lie to you?” She responded, “My foster parents don’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.”
The Realities of Ongoing Emotional Warfare
Whether their biological parents ignored their needs or acted violently to bring a false semblance of control to the chaos of their own lives, foster kids have experienced rejection. And there are even greater evils: sexual abuses and varying forms of physical and emotional torture. When placed into the homes of well-meaning foster parents, often there exists a gulf between preconceived expectations for their behavior as a member of this new family and the reality of these children’s ongoing emotional warfare.
Children in foster care may experience profound difficulties, from learning language and gaining healthy physical mobility to using age-appropriate thinking skills and engaging in appropriate social behaviors and decision-making. Abnormalities in appetite and sleep are often lingering effects that can stop and start for years. Without a strong emotional bond with a caregiver that acts as a secure base, children may engage in indiscriminate attachment behaviors, seeking affection from individuals relatively unknown to them, perhaps in effort to find reassurance of safety.
Those who have experienced abuse or neglect may engage in behaviors that mirror the trauma they have endured, often behaviors that once had some adaptive purpose–hoarding food or engaging in self-harming/self-soothing behaviors (scratching, biting, or cutting themselves). Acts of aggression may stem from undeveloped empathy and impulse control that reflect an attempt to understand how others react when experiencing pain or attempts to make sense out of harm that was done to them.
A Much Needed Shift of Perspective
Two simple principles are often meaningful for foster caregivers:
1. “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. In fact, in many cases therapy brings up emotionally difficult issues that stir raw emotion. Nonetheless the bigger risk is that in the midst of volatility–and with so much focus on posttraumatic stress at the root of problems–we easily miss innumerable signs of posttraumatic resilience, strength, and growth.
2. “It’s not about you.”
Complex trauma often results in chronic anxiety—internalized as depression, externalized as defiance, or both. Children may, consequently, withdraw or explode as they navigate difficult emotional territory, and they need safe relationships where they can test the bounds of trust as they navigate a path forward through grief, anger, and healing.
Heather Forbes, a foster care and adoption educator, has said that too often 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—as long as we ask that question, we will perpetuate a vicious cycle of power struggle, distancing, and further deterioration of attachment. Forbes said the two “right” questions are “What is driving this child’s behavior?” and “What can I do to improve my relationship with this child?”
Source: Jeniffer, Wai Ting Tan/Pixabay
Researcher Daniel Siegel (1999) noted, “The care that adults provide nurtures the development of essential mental tools for survival. These attachment experiences enable children to thrive and achieve a highly flexible and adaptive capacity for balancing their emotions, thinking, and empathic connections with others” (p. 33).
The Wisdom They Need You To Have
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. Here are a few rules for you that are sure to help them—
1. Seek first to understand and then to be understood.
When kids misbehave, parents who understand their children’s underlying needs respond in ways that guide the development of the personality underneath the monstrous mood paralyzing it. Bruce Perry (2001) wrote, “The more you can learn about attachment problems, bonding, normal development and abnormal development, the more you will be able to develop useful behavioral and social interventions.”
2. Know thyself.
It is crucial that you understand your own underlying predispositions and that you ensure appropriate checks and balances are in place to protect your children from your own unresolved issues. I have written (2011), “To the extent that we fail to go toe-to-toe with our own reflex and mood, our reflex and mood will go toe-to-toe with the ones we love. We will find ourselves acting in ways that sabotage our own efforts to get more of what we want, whether it be understanding, connection or behavior change.”
3. Have the courage to do whatever may be helpful.
You can establish structure for a child by implementing house rules and child-specific goals, by linking privileges to responsibilities, and by creating safe and private spaces for children to be and discover who they are. You can nurture a child by engaging them in playful as well as skill-building activities that facilitate opportunities to explore relationships and the world around them, heaping affection unconditionally, lavishing praise on every effort, large or small, and showing a genuine interest in their lives.
4. Try to lay off of issues you cannot resolve.
You will not fix the problem of disobedient behavior through anger and overreaction, but you may sabotage an opportunity for your child’s deep emotional learning and moral-muscle conditioning through giving into your own need to rant and blame. You cannot change whether your kid is particularly shy or moody or energetic, but you can inflict or reinforce a psychological complex in which he or she is left to contend with lingering suspicions that he or she is not good enough.
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5. In all things, be an instrument of peace.
This is not an easy mission, but it is the right one. If I have not yet established a persuasive case, perhaps the practical words of W.L. Bateman will drive us home: “If you keep on doing what you’ve always done, you’ll keep on getting what you’ve always got.”