Saturday, March 8, 2014

Reasons, Feelings, Behaviors

"I could only take little kids because they are more manageable than the older ones. Those kids' behaviors are already set."- Random person with a fleeting thought to adopt from foster care who had the courtesy to share their carefully worded comment with me.

It just so happens, I know all about this section of the foster care certification class. Let me share with you what I know about behaviors in kids from foster care.

Children find themselves in foster care for several reasons:
Physical Abuse
Sexual Abuse
Parental Incarceration
Domestic Violence in the Home
Medical Maltreatment

By the time a child comes into foster care: 
Something bad has already happened 
Someone found out
And they told
Strangers decided the family must be separated

It is normal and expected that children are going to have feelings about that:

These kids come to our home with all of that. At bedtime, they will slip their hands into ours, look us in the eye, and say, "Ms. Teresa, I'm worried that My Mom doesn't love me any more since I told our neighbor that me and my sister had been home alone for 3 days. It's my fault we got taken away from her, and since my self esteem was already pretty low because we're poor, I'm questioning my overall worth.". Then us foster parents hug them, and tell them they are beautiful, and all is right again in the world.

No? That's not how it works? Of course not.

These kids come to our home with all of that. At bedtime, they slip their hands in their diaper and smear poop on the wall. Then they get in our face, scream that they hate us, and call us a "chicken head bitch". When you can calm their outward emotions, they have compulsions to stockpile food in their closet and wet the bed at night. When you can't help them maintain self control, they swipe an entire shelf of picture frames onto the ground in Target or punch themselves in the temples repetitively at school.

Behavior is the language of emotion.

Children who come into foster care have big behaviors because they have big feelings, and all for real reasons. Any child who has a reason for those feelings will show it in their behavior. Behaviors are not set because feelings are not set. They come and go- just like anybody's feelings.

Babies who come into foster care do so for a reason. Please believe me when I tell you they feel that reason. They feel being away from their Mother after birth even though they can't say it. Just like older kids- they behave it. Even when they get a little older and they don't remember- they still feel it.

With all kids, we need to address the feeling behind the behavior. Without identifying the feeling and providing safe and socially acceptable outlets for that emotion, the behaviors the child comes in with will remain.

A lot of frustration for both children, foster families, bio families, and educators occurs when modifying behavior becomes the primary goal. Our most well-intentioned kids can probably white knuckle it through a week or even a month if they are really motivated, but it will not last if we can not get to the root of the behavior. Remember they have very real reasons for those very real feelings.

Foster Parenting is not a matter of finding the right kid so you can avoid big behaviors. Foster Parenting is an immense honor where we have the opportunity to usher kids into a new identity complete with with new behaviors. We get to see kids transition from victim to survivor. When that happens, their feelings and behaviors follow.

It is not easy, and it won't happen fast. Like everything in fostering, though; it's worth it.


  1. This was challenging to me as we have a very limited and young age range for fostering. Our reason is because our biological kids are also so young, but I know deep down part of me feels relieved that I haven't yet dealt with older kids' behaviors. Though we may keep our same age range for now, I need to keep my fear in check.

  2. Great post. Like Christina, my parents only foster infants. We hear "babies are resilient" quite frequently, and it angers me because as you've said, they feel it too. Have you seen this video: ? It relates to this post quite well.

  3. I just had to explain to our case worker why I believe our baby stopped taking bottles from her bio mom during visits. ALL foster children suffer trauma! You said it perfectly when you said even the babies know the reason they are in Care.
    Good post!

  4. LOVE this! Oddly, we requested older children and now have two, two and under, placed with us. I could not agree more with you. And who are these crazy people that think babies are ever easy? I'd like them to sleep here a few nights and say that, red-eyed, to my face.