Do All Foster Kids Have Issues?

Adopting a child can be tricky and demanding. It can also be immensely rewarding. As people live longer, and go through several marriages, raising other people’s children may also become more common.

The Child’s Background

Rewarding and joyful as it can be, however, problems do sometimes arise. To put it crudely, you never know what you are going to get. For all you know, the child may have inherited emotional problems or an addictive personality. Of course, the same could be said of one’s biological children. You don’t need a geneticist to tell you how big a role genes play. Anyone who meets a large family will be struck by the differences between the siblings, with one quiet and patient, a second rude or hyperactive.

You must be sensible. Those who plan to adopt or foster often do so after years of IVF, miscarriages, and heartbreak. They are emotional, and possibly desperate. When in that state, people ignore warnings and resort to clichés about love conquering all. But children often end up in care after appalling physical or emotional abuse. In many cases, they are quite literally traumatised. And traumatised children can be difficult children.

Such abuse need not take place only in infancy or early childhood, by the way. Even neglected or abused babies can grow into unstable and difficult children. Just because a child has no memory of abuse and neglect, that does not mean they will be unaffected. Children raised in such environments do not always resemble the angelic orphans in a Dickens’ novel. They are just as likely to be impulsive, rude, surly, and unpleasant.

Others may have been exposed to violence, both physical and verbal. A four or five-year-old, with no other role models, then accepts this as the norm. They assume that if you want attention, you swear, scream and shout. And if you want power and respect, you kick, scratch and punch. In some families, normal morality is inverted: kindness and manners are ridiculed, violence and aggression admired. Unfortunately, the lessons we learn in the first few years become deeply embedded, and it takes time to reverse them.

All this may sound a little extreme, and a little pessimistic. It may also sound callous. But you must be cautious – in the child’s interests as well as your own. An abused or abandoned child may feel worthless and unloveable. If you later find their behavior intolerable, and ask the authorities to take back control, you will only confirm those feelings and cause the child even more harm.

Potential Problems

Of course, children who grow up in chaotic, dysfunctional families, exposed to abuse and neglect, or simply abandoned, do not always become a ‘problem.’ On the contrary, many grow into extraordinary young people.

That said, problems can arise. Children from troubled backgrounds often harbor a great deal of fear. And, strange as it seems, they can even fear love and security. Try to see the world through the child’s eyes. Life has taught you a painful lesson: don’t trust anyone. When abused or neglected children sought love and comfort, they were beaten, ridiculed, rejected, or sexually exploited. The safest option was to avoid intimacy and withdraw into themselves.

When carers then show them kindness and love, it can be too much. If you have been emotionally starved, this sudden interest may come as a shock, creating a sort of emotional overload. And the child need not have been abused. Children who grow up in care are not used to the intimacy, or one-to-one attention, of a family unit.

Many children from abusive backgrounds also have poor social skills. Chaotic and dysfunctional families often communicate by shouting and swearing. The child learns that if he wishes to be respected, even listened to, he too must shout and swear. Quietness and good manners meant ridicule and persecution; aggression won respect. Indeed, some children even confuse confrontation with communication. In other words, confrontation is how they communicate.

And such behavior isn’t only a means of communication. It doesn’t need a psychologist to point out that people find the familiar comforting and reassuring. Sadly, for many fostered or adopted children, the familiar means loneliness and rejection. When a child screams and shouts, lashes out, or simply retreats into sullen silence, they provoke you to abuse or neglect them, thus re-establishing the very thing they are used to – isolation.

Dealing With Birth Parents

Once again, it must be emphasized that these are worst case scenarios, and that for many people fostering or adopting is the best thing they ever do. If you decide on this path, and it proves successful, one obvious hurdle remains: how do you deal with their birth parents?

Some children have no memory of their parents. This may be for a several reasons. For example, their mother may have been a foreign student who had only a brief relationship with their father. Once they were born, she put them up for adoption and returned to her home country. In other cases, the mother, or maybe both parents, died when the child was very young and there was no extended family to take them in.

In other cases, the child will have a clear memory. Indeed, they may even know where one, or both, of their parents live. How would you react if they suddenly turned up on your doorstep? What if your child bumped into her real parents at the local mall one Saturday afternoon?

And what if they discovered something terrible about them? What if they were conceived as a result of rape, for example? Maybe their mother was assaulted as she walked home from school, and they were the result. Imagine how difficult that would be to process. Or maybe they discover that their father sexually abused them as a baby, while their mother stood aside, or even encouraged it. Such things are unimaginable to the average person, but they happen.

Above all, you need to support them. Of course they will be curious about their birth parents. It would strange if they were not. The more you talk about such things the better. Secrets and lies will cause nothing but problems. And in any case, thanks to the Internet and social media, they can soon find these things out for themselves. It would be better if they did so out in the open, with your full support. Remember, this will be highly emotive, and your child will soon sense your pain or disapproval, whether you hide it or not.

Finally, consider what you will do when their biological parents die. For example, the child may have been taken into care because his mother was an alcoholic or drug abuser. If their addiction kills them, do not, for goodness sake, say something so crass as “but it’s not like she cared about you,” or “I don’t know why you’re so upset – you hadn’t seen her for years.” That is beside the point. Their death will unleash a storm of emotion, from guilt and rage to shame and regret.

Talk it out openly and honestly. Don’t patronise them or tell them how to feel; just listen. It may also help to mark their passing in some way. If their birth parent lived a sad and broken life, and had been unable to care for them due to addiction or mental illness, the sense of injustice and futility would be difficult even for an adult to accept, let alone a child.

So do something to mark the fact that this person existed, that their life mattered. Maybe you could take the child somewhere their father or mother was happy, before addiction or illness overwhelmed them, and plant a bush, or carve something into the trunk of a tree, or release a balloon, etc. We all need ritual and ceremony at such times.

Seeing the World From the Child’s Point of View

Adults who were adopted, or raised by foster carers, usually stress the following. First, while they accept discipline, they resent it when they are treated differently to their siblings. That does not mean you must treat every child in the same way (obviously you must adjust to differences in temperament and behavior), but you must be very careful to treat every child with the same patience, kindness and love. An adopted or fostered child will be especially sensitive to inequality and unfairness.

You must also be careful not to compare them to others, even as a joke. An adopted or fostered child already feels different. And when they play with kids from the neighborhood, or go to another child’s house for dinner, they will be conscious of this difference. Deep down they may doubt their value or worth, or feel that they need to compensate in some way. Looking back as adults, adopted children sometimes say that “I felt I had to be exceptional just to be equal.”

Insecurity is also common. Remember that an adopted child is often a frightened child. Just because you have gained their trust, that doesn’t mean an end to all their insecurity and fear. They were abandoned or lost before, and so naturally they fear the same thing happening again. When a grandparent, neighbor, or even pet, dies, such children find it harder to process and accept. Above all, they fear being “sent away” again, or “sent back,” like a faulty toy or an ill-fitting coat.

Ultimately, fostering or adopting is a leap in the dark. But the same could be said about having one’s own children. And though kindness and love may not be all you need, they are not a bad start.

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Mark Goddard, Ph.D.

Mark Goddard, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist and a consultant specializing in the social-personality psychology. His publications include magazine chapters, articles and self-improvement books on CBT for anxiety, stress and depression. In his spare time, he enjoys reading about political and social history.

*The views expressed by Mr. Goddard in this column are his own, are not made in any official capacity, and do not represent the opinions of his employers.

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