Parenting children in foster care requires a trauma-informed approach. Recognizing the trauma behind their behaviors is essential.
An Essential Parenting Skill
Understanding the reason behind a child’s behavior is a skill most parents must develop. If your toddler is throwing a tantrum, it helps to pause first. Considering how much sleep they got, when they had their last snack, and any changes in their routine might provide insight into why they are melting down. This allows you to respond appropriately and also gives added compassion and patience when you can correlate the behavior with something tangible.
Applying to Children in Foster Care
The heart behind this skill also exists for parenting children in foster care. I could list behavior after behavior that we’ve experienced with the kids in our care. At first, so many of them were exhausting and infuriating. While this continues to be a learning process for my husband and I, over the last several months this skill has clicked with us. When we’re faced with a behavior, big or small, it ALWAYS helps to pause and consider where it is coming from. Is it a fear of being abandoned? Are they being triggered by something in their past? Maybe they’re trying to parent and protect their siblings? Are the secure in their routine and what will be happening next?
I distinctly remember the first time I really came face to face with how trauma was impacting every area of their behaviors. The kids had been in our care for a couple months and we were winding down the end of the school year for our kindergartener. Over those months I had been acquiring so much paper it was unreal. It felt like stacks of papers were covering every blank surface of our home. As we started to fall into routine, I went through a big purge of stuff I knew I didn’t need. This included things like the reminders from school about an upcoming field trip or a weekly agenda of what specials our boy had each day. It felt good to organize and get things straightened out.
Later that evening, while doing bedtime routines for the kids and getting things settled I heard a commotion from the kitchen. I walked into the room and saw that sweet 6 year old boy in tears, sitting on the floor and sorting through papers. He had opened the trash and saw some things with his name on it and absolutely broke down. This caused him to dump the trash can (which contained a lot of actual trash too) and start digging through everything to claim what was his. There was a moment of frustration. I knew what was in there and that it was nothing of “value”. No art projects or pictures or “special” things were thrown away, just boring school communication that was no longer relevant. But I did recognize that he felt they were his and so I sat down with him to try to explain.
Seeing the Trauma
Despite my good intentions, I did not realize that the trauma went even deeper. As I told him that I had only thrown away things that were for grown ups and we didn’t need anymore, he looked at me through tears. Then he said, “These are my things and I need them so I can stay at my school.” I was devastated. Beyond his surface level hurt of having his “things” thrown away, he was triggered on a deeper level. Losing these things meant losing his security in a school he had just come back to find routine and comfort in. Not having access to that agenda meant not knowing his place, where he’d been, and where he’s going. I felt very small.
We’ve come a long way since that evening on the floor of the kitchen. However, this trigger for him is very real and still exists. I see it in the way he hoards things, both at home and at school. This week I was handed a zip lock bag to “keep safe” while he was at day camp. The bag contained 5 fruit loops that he felt were special. Back in the early days we went through a season where the 5 and 6 year old labeled their name on everything with black sharpie. This includes their beds, closet door frames, toys, and blankets. Did sharpie all over these items frustrate us? Yes. But knowing the trauma behind their actions makes it easier for us to respond to.
This week at our church’s VBS, both were obsessed with collecting confetti pieces off the ground. It was to the point where they were being disruptive and disobedient when asked to stop. While I know how that looks to others, I see that deep drive they have in them when they see something they want. They take it because they don’t know when they’ll have another chance to get it. Meanwhile, they are rebuilding their “collection” of things they lost when removed from their home. Ultimately, addressing these behaviors is a long game but starts with acknowledging the root of why they are happening. It is our job as foster parents to remain trauma informed. We must consider what is driving their behavior so that it can be addressed with compassion and patience.