When it comes to foster children, the road can be long and healing doesn’t happen overnight. They often struggle with basic tasks and transitions and dysregulate easily. Prepare for a battle as trust and bonding aren’t easy for these kiddos. From Fear to Love by Bryan Post is used as a reference. My article on this topic may also be helpful.
The most important thing a foster parent can do is listen. Hear what your children are saying and also see what they are trying to communicate through their behaviors. Encourage them and give them hope. Don’t be afraid to talk about what happened and try not to react to their stories. Help them to process their past and integrate it into the present.
Be consistent and do not take their behavior personally. It isn’t about you. Stability is mandatory and they need to feel the safety of structure. Give choices to create some sense of control. Learn to respond to a behavior instead of reacting, remain calm and interpret through a lens of understanding. Have them perform a “re-do” instead of yelling. Recognize some behaviors, like lying, are born from fear; their brain is telling them this is a life-threatening situation. Instead of scolding a fearful child, soothe them until they have calmed and can process what has transpired. “When a child is in a state of stress or fear, that child cannot develop attachment.”
Bonding and attachment are critical, even if the child is only in the home for a short time. A chemical in the brain called oxytocin, the love hormone, must be stimulated. Create oxytocin by making eye contact, hugging/touching on the shoulder, eating meals together, quality time one-on-one, reading together, playing games, etc. Watch for triggers of their trauma, usually caused by some reminder of an event. Triggers can be as minute such as sounds, smells, feelings, places, postures, tone of voice, or even emotions. They will cause the child to lose regulation, which often presents as avoidance or hyper-reactivity. Help them learn to recognize when they are triggered so they can actively work on self-soothing or ask for assistance or sustenance such as food, a hug, or a ball to kick.
Chill out corners are a place the child can go when they’re feeling dysregulated. They are invaluable. Have fabric with different textures, kinetic sand, puzzles, books about emotions, squeeze balls, pillows to punch or scream into, whatever works best. This is their safe place until they are under control.
Finally, look at yourself. Everyone has had some form of trauma in their life and adults have triggers too. Actively work on processing your own history so you can help them with theirs. Self-understanding is critical; dealing with your own experiences will increase sensitivity and awareness when the reactions are coming from a place other than the relationship with the child.
Be patient, be firm, and have clear boundaries and structure. Give the child as much oxytocin as possible, showing them love and kindness. Help them grieve and hear their story. Teach them how to control their emotions and their bodies and watch for triggers. Don’t forget to process the trauma of your own life so you can help them through theirs. Keep planting seeds in these children’s lives, the fruit will grow and they will be better for it.