How Foster Parents Can Help Ease Mental Health Struggles
There is nothing better you can do with your life than to open your home and your heart to a child in need. But doing so is both a profound gift and a profound responsibility. No matter what your child’s experience, whether it is the death of a biological parent or a court-mandated removal from the birth home, your foster child will inevitably have experienced trauma.
And that means that there will be an adjustment period not only for the child but for the entire family, particularly if your foster child is one of the nearly 80% of children in the foster care system to experience significant mental health struggles.
A History of Trauma
In the majority of cases, children often enter the foster care system because they have experienced significant and prolonged abuse or neglect. They may have experienced parental addiction and housing insecurity. And they likely lack the familial and social connections they need to provide them with a sense of stability, security, and safety in their lives.
And that kind of history is a lot for little shoulders to bear. Children reared in such volatile environments are likely to experience significant anxiety and, in some cases, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They may be restless, fearful, withdrawn, mistrustful, or hypervigilant.
On top of the burden of the past, children in foster care are likely coping with feelings of guilt and shame, especially as they begin to bond with their foster family and to enjoy the new and more stable life their foster home provides. They may blame themselves for “abandoning” or “betraying” their birth family by entering into this new life without them.
What to Expect and How to Cope
The history of instability at home that foster children often carry can lead to significant separation anxiety, especially as their bond with their foster family grows. Your little one will need lots of patience and understanding to help them feel more secure. This is going to mean reassuring your child that you will be back for them and giving them a time frame for understanding when, exactly, you will return for them.
Because young children don’t usually have a clear understanding of time, you can use daily benchmarks to help them know when to expect you (i.e. after snack or nap time or when Sesame Street comes on), You can also create quick little rituals that you and your child share before you leave and when you return to pick them up, such as a quick fist bump or a heart hand signal.
It can also be helpful to give your child a transitional object to hold when they begin to feel anxious or to miss you, whether that be a stuffed animal, a book, or, for older children, a more discrete item such as a keychain. The more predictability you can build into the routine, the more reassured your child will feel and the more readily the separation anxiety will dissipate.
Mood and Behavioral Disorders
In addition to a troubled personal history, your child may also experience a range of risk factors for the development of mood and behavioral disorders, from prenatal exposure to drugs and alcohol to insufficient nutrition and pediatric care. Such personal and physiological factors can significantly increase children’s risk of major depressive disorder (MDD), generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and PTSD. In addition, these children may experience substantially more aggressive and disruptive behaviors.
If your child is experiencing a mood or behavioral disorder, the diagnosis can have a ripple effect across the entire family, leading to stress, conflict, and depression throughout the household. For this reason, it is important to pursue strategies not just to care for the child, but for the entire household.
For instance, creating safe spaces throughout the home for your child or other family members to retreat to when they are feeling overwhelmed or frustrated can go far to defuse potentially volatile situations. Best of all, when your child sees you, and their siblings, taking a time out when needed to decompress and self-regulate, they’ll learn to emulate such behaviors themselves, both at home and in the bigger, louder world outside.
Another highly beneficial strategy is to bring a pet into the home. There’s already a mountain of evidence supporting the mental health benefits of a companion animal. Petting an animal has been shown to reduce anxiety and depression, decrease heart rate and blood pressure, and promote an overall sense of happiness and wellbeing. Plus, the love and care of a pet can be a wonderful way for the family to bond and for the child to build self-esteem and a sense of belonging and unconditional acceptance and love.
There is perhaps no greater gift than to open your home to a foster child, but it is important to be prepared for the mental health challenges that may accompany this process. Learning to care not only for the mental wellbeing of the child but also of the entire family is the first step in building the beautiful future that your growing family deserves.
Jori Hamilton is an experienced writer residing in the Northwestern U.S. She covers a wide range of subjects but takes a particular interest in covering topics related to child development, health and wellness, mindfulness, and productivity. To learn more about Jori, you can follow her on Twitter and LinkedIn