Behaviour of children in care

There is no way to avoid the reality that children who enter care (foster, relative/kin care) are highly likely to have experienced trauma by way of their earlier experience.

The next traumatic event for children and young people is the actual trauma of being taken from their parent/s – ideally this is planned and done with absolute respect for family but sadly there is a long legacy of this happening very reactively and poorly.

Another form of trauma relates to when family or foster carers agree to take a child/children and then soon after renege/relinquish/retire from this commitment. There are children that move from ‘home’ to ‘home’ due to this pattern and that caused significant adverse impacts on top of their history prior to entering care.  There is also a small percentage of children that experience adverse experience in care which is heart breaking.

This level of trauma is obviously going to impact on their ability to have normal functioning in all areas. Imagine a child who is constantly scared, hungry, sore, confused, lonely, rejected. Their ability to process the world around them is completely disrupted by the constant state of fight, flight or freeze. So, it is not surprising that when children in care have behaviours that are a consequence of their own life experience. This may manifest as compliance, being very oppositional, having no idea how to respond to routines/boundaries, not accepting ‘no’ or ‘not now’ as a response.

From my view, the ability to provide trauma informed care to children in care is the main priority. Children deserve and need to feel safe to be able to function.. just like us adults. Children who have experienced trauma need time to heal in a that safe environment.

Trauma informed parenting is playing the long game and not expecting overnight change.

I have been playing the long game now for 7 years as CC is staying with us for life. When CC arrived she was incredibly compliant to the point of wondering what her actual view on anything was. Over time she found her voice and with time it also became evident that CC struggled in different environments, struggled with change, struggled with noise and struggled to be vulnerable as well. We did eventually go to a ‘dual diagnosis’ clinic which is driven by trauma specialists. At this point, we were given an option. Yes, CC had Reactive Attachment Disorder due to the very high number of ‘placement changes’ she experienced during her critical attachment years. We were also given the choice about including a diagnosis of ‘low range’ autism (not the actual terminology they used but you get what I mean). The hypothesis was that we can call is ‘autism’ or we can call it ‘trauma’ and work on healing the trauma. We opted for the later and I continue to apply trauma strategies to help CC. At times I feel like I ‘over-parent’ her and this is really just following the importance of routine (we are flexible but try to generally follow the same routine most days) but I know that CC benefits most from this style which means life is easier for all of us. BTW this is working incredibly well and CC will soon start some trauma therapy (age appropriate) to help her further with her healing.

There are of course children who do and will have diagnosis that fall into the disability range as well as behaviour range. For these children and young people an holistic approach to support is imperative.

I do want to mention the importance of co-parenting children with trauma. I did learn this one the hard way. It is really important that if there is more than one adult in the home, then there is a shared agreement to apply trauma informed parenting strategies. If not, there will be confusion for the child in terms of a lack of consistency and this will have negative knock on effects for everyone. I have put together some questions to help you have these conversations if you are considering foster caring or caring for child in your family that has to come into statutory care. Email me for a copy.

You can provide trauma informed care, even in respite and a key to doing this well is that all adults supporting that child in the home environments have a consistent approach to help him or her have predictability.

You of course could and should, where possible, work with the child’s birth family/first family to share elements of parenting that are working well to help them with their relationship or to support getting children back home.

There really are many resources available to foster, relative/kin carers in relation to providing trauma informed care (such as reparative parenting). There is training (in person and face to face), different therapeutic modalities (EMDR, Parent Child Interaction Therapy, Family Functioning Therapy and many others I don’t know about) and then there is your foster care agency who should have staff and resources available to help with this.

Another key area to align support for children with trauma-based behaviours is their school. This really is a hit and miss but it shouldn’t be. There are many resources also available to school (such as calmer classrooms) to ensure teachers are also trauma informed. If you are a carer and are finding the school is blaming and shaming a child with trauma for their behaviours, then they are absolutely exacerbating that child’s greatest fears and behaviours.

Want to learn more?

note – children and young people who are entering into the statutory care system are most often doing so as the result of intergenerational disadvantage, parent’s own trauma, untreated mental health, homelessness, domestic violence (and often a mix of these are playing out at the point of children coming into care). I personally acknowledge there are prevailing systemic issues such as racism and a lack of services to support families earlier that are exacerbating this issue. A key solution is earlier intervention solutions – ideally co-designed by the people that experience these impacts. I also acknowledge that children in care, wherever possible should be living with family (including their siblings) and that whilst foster care is a ‘back end solution’ it is still required to support children and families to either get back to together or be very connected even in care.

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