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How can foster/adoptive parents meet the needs of traumatized kids?

Many adopted children or kids in foster care have experienced trauma in their lives. Consequently, caregivers must give these children the necessary socio-emotional learning opportunities to help ensure that their human needs are sequentially met. To enable these kids to develop into successful, secure, loving and mature adults, special emphasis must be given to children who have come from a hurtful place.


Do

Do understand the socio-emotional milestones that children must master

There are several socio-emotional milestones that children must master in order to develop into successful adults. These milestones are organized into the form of a pyramid.

The first and largest rung of the pyramid, Safety/Security/Protection, is the most important, especially for children who have spent a great deal of time living in a hard place. Caregivers, regardless of how hurtful and insecure the child’s life has been, must spend most of their time at this basic level and revisit it when necessary in their interactions with children. They should remind children that they, the caregivers, are the ones who are “large and in charge” and who are strong enough to keep them safe. This is necessary for children to successfully move up to the trust level.

With a secure base, children can more easily transcend each level upwards to Maturity, without any hiccups or holes in the development of their character. As kids progress up the pyramid, their needs become more social, psychological and spiritual. If there is an uncorrected interruption in the sequential fulfillment of these needs, this will increase the needs of a child, which influences the development of character in a negative way.

Relationships with others can become conditional--based on taking and not giving. Or a child can become dependent on inappropriate, compulsive behaviors, such as chemical dependency, as a preferable method of self-soothing deep feelings of insecurity or self-loathing. Mature adulthood could become unreachable without intense relationships with self and other interventions.

Do read a child’s needs appropriately

It is vital to be able to read the needs of children as their behavior may be just the tip of the iceberg. Then, do what you can to interpersonally fulfill what is not being said.

When children are whining and asking for material things, they need love and positive relational interaction with you--whether they know it or not. The supplication of “stuff” when a child needs you, teaches a child that the acquisition of stuff, something outside the self, is more valuable than intimate, deep, loving relationships with significant others.

When a child has an ugly, disrespectful attitude and they know better, they are begging for boundaries and limits. What they actually need are their safety, security and protection needs to be met by you. Teach them that you can keep them safe--even if it is from their own attitude. If you allow your children to disrespect you and run your house, you are teaching them you are not strong enough to keep them safe, so therefore, they must keep themselves and you safe from whatever horrible thing they can imagine in their little minds. And they know they are too little to provide protection. Children who act as the alphas in their relationship with their caregivers, are actually very frightened, stressed and insecure.

Do recognize your role in teaching kids to feel safe, secure and protected

For children with emotional trauma, the path to the top of the pyramid (mature adulthood) will be riddled with potholes if kids have not mastered the milestone of feeling safe, secure and protected with primary caregivers. You, the caregiver, are responsible for teaching this. Many children who come from hurtful places have already formed a template that the world is unsafe and caregivers do not keep them safe. They may test you over and over again with nasty, disrespectful behavior to see if you will hurt them, give up on them or give them up. They may startle at the slightest change in routine, or they may have trouble letting you out of their sight. You are a child’s meter for determining how safe the world is, how valuable they are and how much respect they should have for themselves. If someone has no respect for themselves, they can’t have true respect for others. A child learns self-respect by learning to respect the ones who keep them safe.

Do fix yourself

Insecure parents who abuse were abused. Running your house like a military base is not conducive to raising loving and secure adults. Fix yourself in order to be the parent your child needs. Keep in mind that if you have insecurities that were created because of your own childhood, children have a way of triggering these insecurities and letting you know where you need help.


Don't

Do not fail to create developmentally appropriate rules

Children need rules and structure created for them until they can appropriately create this for themselves. They should be protected from violence in the world, on TV or via video games. Their quarreling should be redirected and resolved via positive conflict management methods. Children passively learn what they take in with their senses, and they actively learn what they participate in. They need self-respect to be modeled for them and should have respect for others expected of them. Children must be taught that not only are they important, but so is everyone else. Altruism and selfless service to those in need should be a family value that is modeled as it is the right way to act in the world.

Do not forget that self-esteem should be earned and not given

A child needs developmentally appropriate chores and responsibilities to prepare them to develop a sense of self. From the first day that a non-birth child joins a family, be sure to help that child see the value they bring to their new family by their ability to be a good helper. Being given opportunities to clean, put toys away, carry things for others, set the table or wash dishes helps a child feel competent. In addition, they will feel that they have value because family members depend on their help. And most importantly, helping by doing for themselves and for others sets the stage for building positive self-esteem, self- confidence and self-value because it teaches kids that they are important, just like everybody else.

A blossoming true sense of self, which develops into positive self-worth and real self-esteem, is earned and not given. Trying to give a child self-esteem by awarding compliments for jobs not well done and doing for them what they can do for themselves can lead to a child’s disappointment with themselves and feelings of uselessness. If a child is absolutely tone deaf, tell them they sang a pretty song. But telling them they have a beautiful voice just isn’t true. If caregivers lie to children about their personal attributes, is anything they say the truth? When a child can trust an adult to tell them the truth—if the truth is developmentally appropriate and delivered kindly—a child will feel safer with that person, and the child learns to tell others the truth.

Do not overlook the need to treat kids normally

When you bring a non-birth child, who came from a hurtful place, into your home and shower him/her with lots of stuff, this just teaches entitlement and not self-esteem. Many children adopted from foreign orphanages or state child protective services lament that they are tired of being treated like an orphan who was rescued from an awful place. These kids want to be treated normally because they want to feel normal.

Do not parent from a point of pity

Do not feel sorry for a child who has come from a hurtful place and parent from a point of pity. This teaches a child to pity themselves and fosters character weakness and self-centeredness.

Instead, teach from a place of empathy and understanding, and teach courage to those who have come from a hurtful place. Maintain an attitude of agreement that yes, they may have come from a hard place, but they will overcome this and help make the world a better place because they know what it is like to hurt.

Provide children with opportunities to think themselves out of situations they may have put themselves into due to poor problem-solving and low self-worth. Turn the weak beginnings a child may have come from into opportunities to develop. Help them develop life skills, so they can overcome hard times that may come their way in the future, as well as helping others.


Summary
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Becoming a mature adult is no easy task--even for people who don’t come from harsh beginnings. Understanding the sequential advancement of stages in a child’s social-emotional development can serve as a structure to help caregivers remember how important they are in a child’s life as their teacher, protector and tour guide into adulthood.


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Beth Powell, LCSWSocial Worker and Psychotherapist

Beth Powell, LCSW, specializes in Trauma-Informed Care: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Complex PTSD, Developmental Trauma and Acute Stress. Beth is a licensed clinical social worker, psychotherapist, certified academic educator, neuro-behav...

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