Supporting adoptive parents and foster carers
Adopted and fostered children and their parents/carers face unique emotional challenges. For many families, this involves the parents learning intentional new ‘therapeutic’ approaches to parenting, which are not generally required for birth parents. How can you best support such parents and carers who may attend one of your parenting courses?
Attachment disorder and developmental trauma
Many of us will be familiar with attachment theory. Research is increasingly showing that the way a child is treated in the early years of their life can have a huge impact on the development of their brain and how they relate to others.
Attachment is the profound and deep connection established between the child and caregiver in the early years of life. It’s a basic human need, and children with secure attachments have the foundation they need to form a sense of themselves as lovable, worthy and capable.
‘Attachment issues’ is a phrase used to describe a variety of behaviours which may arise after a child has lost his/her ‘primary carer’, or has experienced emotional abandonment in early years. Children can become overly anxious to please, desperate to do anything to avoid being abandoned again. Some express their chaotic feelings in chaotic behaviour. Others turn in on their own pain and withdraw, unable to relate to others. They may have some of the following traits:
A change of strategy?
When a child has suffered neglect, abuse or loss – or indeed for any child with an insecure attachment (estimated at 40% of children (2)) – isolating them through use of ‘time out’ or the ‘naughty step’ will simply reinforce their belief that they are shameful and deserved to be neglected and abandoned. Such children are unlikely to have the ability to regulate their behaviour and emotions; they may feel ‘flooded’ by anger, rage, shame or fear.
Tools that aim to reward, incentive or penalise can just add pressure and increase feelings of shame and failure. Children can demonstrate frequent outbursts of rage and anger, as a reaction to early abuse or neglect. Any attempt to impose control (eg by setting boundaries) can feel very threatening to a child who has learned that being in control and not being vulnerable is the only way to stay safe in frightening situations.
Therapeutic parenting involves seeking to understand the complex emotions that are driving our children’s behaviour, and responding to those emotions in a calm, receptive yet assertive way, rather than just punishing the behaviour. Carers will need to remember that traumatised children are often ‘stuck’ in the emotional and relational stage of an infant, and need handling accordingly.
What does this mean for parents and carers?
If trauma and attachment issues have affected the child, it can have an impact on the whole family. Sometimes parents can become drawn into negative patterns of behaviour and response. They may think it’s their fault or that they are not doing a good enough job; there can be feelings of guilt and anger.
Looking after a developmentally traumatised child can be enormously draining and exhausting. Behaviour that could be labelled as relentless ‘attention-seeking’ might be more accurately described as ‘attachment-seeking’, as the child desperately seeks safety and security in what seems like a dangerous world. Encourage parents that they are doing their best, and ensure they remember the following:
This can only serve as a brief introduction to a complex topic. We would encourage you to find out more, or contact us if you are interested in exploring this further. You may find the following helpful:
Home for Good
This is an initiative of Care for the Family, the Evangelical Alliance and CCPAS. It aims to create a culture where adoption and fostering is an integral part of the church’s ministry; and where churches are equipped to support foster carers, adoptive families and kinship carers in their congregations.
Why Can’t My Child Behave? Dr Amber Elliott
A readable, practical and illuminating book on empathic parenting strategies for adoptive and foster families.
No Matter What, Sally Donovan
Sally is an adoptive parent, and her blog and book give a gripping insight into what it’s like to parent traumatised children.
(1) Symptoms from Adoption UK factsheet
(2) Moullin, S., Waldfogel, J., and Washbrook, E. (2014) Baby Bonds: Parenting, attachment and a secure base for children. The Sutton Trust