There are nearly 400,000 children living in the foster care system in the U.S. Some of these children are there only temporarily because their parents are in jail, undergoing investigations for child abuse, or working toward sobriety from drugs and alcohol. Others have been in the foster care system for years. Tragically, more than a third of foster children will wait three years or longer before being adopted. If you’re adopting a foster child, considering becoming a foster parent, or work with foster children, it’s vital to understand that foster children face very different childhoods from the childhoods most adults remember. This means foster children need lots of love, and the adults who work with them may need a hefty dose of patience.
Life as a Foster Child
Foster children face a world filled with uncertainty and peril. Children enter the foster system in one of two ways: first, they can be taken from parents who are unfit to care for them. These children may have been exposed to horrifying abuse, or may have lost one or both parents. Second, children may enter the foster care system when parents willingly give them up, but no adoptive home is available. These children may struggle with feelings of rejection and abandonment.
Once in the foster care system, children’s lives are deeply uncertain. They may shuffle from house to house, with little warning and little explanation. Some foster parents may be abusive, neglectful, or poorly equipped to manage the cornucopia of issues foster children face. Others may be wonderful caregivers, and being taking from these caregivers can be deeply traumatic.
Children involved in the system don’t have their own pets, their own rooms, or their own possessions. Instead, what they have depends on where they live, adding to their sense of uncertainty.
How Foster Children Feel
Every foster child is different, and not all foster children struggle with psychological problems. Generally, though, people who work with foster children should expect an adjustment period. Some of the most common problems include:
- Poor behavior as an attempt to get attention or due to inadequate parenting
- Health problems due to neglect by parents or other caregivers
- Attachment issues—foster children may be desperate for loving adults
- Post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and depression
- Anger and aggression. This is often the product of exposure to abuse. Children who are abused learn to abuse others.
- Drug and alcohol issues
- Inappropriate sexual behavior, particularly among children who were molested or whose parents engaged in sexual activity around them.
How Adults Can Help
You cannot punish away a foster child’s problems. Indeed, punishment can make many issues significantly worse. Instead, foster children needs lots of unconditional love and support. Some ways to offer this include:
- Offering children hugs and cuddles, but not forcing the issue, since children with a history of abuse may be reticent to be touched
- Building children’s self-esteem by encouraging them to pursue their interests and complimenting them for hard work
- Rewarding good behavior while ignoring bad behavior
- Providing a stable environment where children feel safe
- Talking to children about what’s going to happen next; because foster children struggle with unstable environments, they may be deeply anxious about the future.
Being a foster parent is no small feat, and requires immense sensitivity and patience. You’ll need to be prepared to care for an imperfect child who may need quite a bit of assistance. The effort, though, is well worth it, particularly if you are considering adopting or want to play a role in ending the problems of child abuse and maltreatment.