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How foster carers handle ‘challenging’ foster child behaviours

Wednesday 27 July 2022

As a foster carer, you’ll sometimes encounter behaviours from the children in your care that are tougher than normal to manage. These can range from defiant risk-taking and rule breaking, right through to mental health episodes.

We put a lot of resource into supporting our foster carers and foster children and, if the need arises, we can increase it quickly. This makes sure foster carers have what they need to be their best in the situation, and our foster children get their needs met.

It’s not just this though. The patience, tenacity and generosity of our foster carers has a big part to play in making a difference to these children’s lives.

Building trust as a foster parent

Ella Booth is a Supervising Social Worker at Fostering Solutions, a National Fostering Group agency. She explained how challenging behaviours are not the foster child’s fault.

“The majority of foster children have experienced neglect and abuse, and this is why they are in foster care,” Ella explained. “They might be traumatised but often we just don’t know what a new foster child has experienced.”

As weeks and months pass, a child will build trust with their foster carer. This helps their healing and part of this adjustment might be changes in their behaviour – on an unconscious level, they might feel it’s a safe place to start working through their trauma.

Fostering children who have experienced trauma

Ella gave an example of a family that had been fostering a child from being a toddler. “We didn’t know very much about the child’s history,” she said. “Years passed and suddenly she began to talk to her foster parents in a very detailed way about her experiences.”

In cases like this, foster parents can get as much support as they need from their local team. National Fostering Group offers a lot of support in a business-as-usual kind of way.

“This is what I really love about National Fostering Group,” said Ella. “I value the support we offer. It makes a big difference knowing there’s someone at the end of the phone 24/7, whenever you need them.”

They know it’s not the foster child’s fault… All our foster carers are able to say ‘he’s my baby’ as well as ‘he’s being horrible’! It’s love. And it’s what the children need.

It’s when the crunch comes that this support can be scaled up – like daily phone calls, access to specialist training for foster carers – plus tailored support for the foster child, such as counselling.

“They’re not alone,” Ella explained. “If challenges arise, they can get additional support from our therapeutic support services, which is a specialist social worker led area.

“This team has had a lot of training in therapeutic fostering and they have a deep understanding of trauma and challenging behaviours, among other things. They spend time with foster carers, building more understanding of the impact of trauma on the brain and behaviour.”

Love goes a long way

Caring for a foster child who’s experienced trauma isn’t always so intense. Ella said: “One foster child who’d had a tough time is thriving in the care of a foster carer who makes her feel safe and loved. In her role, she makes sure she’s completely reliable and available to the child in her care.

“On a practical level, it’s small acts of love – like warming her PJs and always, always answering her phone. They are such good pals! We matched them so well!

“The girl needs someone utterly reliable who is there for her and makes her feel safe and loved. And this foster parent has a lot of love to give. The child trusts her and can thrive under her care. She feels she’s reached a safe haven. She feels loved.”

Trauma and teenagers

When children hit puberty, teenage brain undergoes a lot of actual physical change, due to the flood of new hormones. Trauma adds more complexity, which can be played out in their behaviour.

“Teenage hormones kick in,” said Ella. “The brain is rewiring, unravelling connections and rewiring them. This is a normal teenage brain but in a child with trauma it’s different – much more intense.”

The pandemic response

Ella has been a Supervising Social Worker for National Fostering Group since February 2020. She feels the first pandemic lockdown shaped what she learned as a new social worker.

“Some foster children became teenagers during the pandemic. It was a perfect storm. Some children had a history of trauma and, for some, it re-emerged – almost like PTSD [post traumatic stress disorder]. On top of this, they had pandemic restrictions, loss of routine, separation from friends – all that.

“When trauma re-emerges, it can be quite difficult. There’s a lot of rejection – it’s common for a child to say things like ‘you’re not my mum’. This is all part and parcel of testing boundaries and working through things, but it can feel hurtful to their carers.

This very challenging foster child called them ‘mum and dad’. Even though he was being challenging, he wanted to be there.

“However, they know it’s not the foster child’s fault. One child I know has been fostered by a family for more than 10 years and he’s now in his teens. He’s such a sweetheart but during these teenage years he’s being very demanding. But his foster family love him and he’s a great kid – I’ve got every confidence he’ll get to adulthood just fine!

“Our foster carers are very committed. We all have a wobble as parents or foster parents and our foster parents know this. Even when it gets tough, they don’t give in. They find reserves they didn’t know they had. They love their foster children and they’ve made a commitment. It doesn’t scare them.

“Foster children become your children. All our foster carers are able to say ‘he’s my baby’ as well as ‘he’s being horrible’!

“It’s love. And it’s what the children need.”

‘Amazing’ tenacity

Ella gave an extreme example of an experienced fostering couple and a foster child who was on the brink of being sent into residential care. “This is the best solution for some children – they can get the care and attention they need,” she said.

“The local authority was leaning towards it. But this couple showed that a good outcome can be achieved in a family environment, which is more desirable and has turned out very well. They have so much love and stepped up in a way many couldn’t – and showed how much is possible. It’s amazing.

“We monitor these situations carefully alongside the local authority. This very challenging foster child called them ‘mum and dad’. Even though he was being challenging, he wanted to be there.

“As well as tons of support from us – it’s teamwork – they had respite care too, which can be the difference between a demanding placement working and not.”

Have Ella’s foster carers inspired you?

Most foster carers won’t experience a challenge such as the one above. But every day we help people be the best they can be in their role – the best they can be for the foster child in their care.

We achieve this with training and support; through wraparound care like the Mockingbird Family Model (which is available through some of our agencies), and by offering a generous fostering allowance (with excellent perks and benefits).

If you’re up to the challenge, enquire now.  As our foster carers say, it’s one of the most rewarding and fulfilling things you can do.

Find out if you could be a foster carer
Find out if you could be a foster carer
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