Attachment between parent and child begins within the first month of life. It is a simple process—the baby cries because it is hungry or upset, and the parent responds by meeting their baby’s needs. A healthy attachment is created when the baby learns they can trust their caregiver, leading to a deep emotional bond and sense of security.
Within the first year of life, a child learns if their needs will be met or neglected based on their experience with their primary caregiver. The attachment bond strengthens throughout childhood each time care and compassion are experienced. Healthy attachments are the foundation for emotional health and self-control.
By contrast, every child entering foster care experiences a disruption in attachment to their primary caregiver, making it hard for the child to trust and form meaningful connections with any future foster or adoptive parent.
Foster parents frequently experience problematic behaviors rooted in attachment, especially when the child has been in and out of multiple foster homes. Most foster children move approximately seven times while in foster care. Every time a child moves, the next caregiver has to work that much harder to gain their trust.
If your goal is to discover how to connect with your foster child, there is training available to help caregivers understand and plan to address maladaptive behaviors. The first step is to assume and understand that the child has experienced trauma and loss. These traumatic experiences often result in maladaptive behaviors like non-compliance, hyper-vigilance, dysregulation, talking back, and anxiety.
Disrupted attachments can cause some foster kids to become instinctually hyper-vigilant and concerned that certain negative experiences will happen again. Hyper-vigilance is a form of self-preservation that tends to look like non-compliance, defiance, and an inability to bond with the foster parent.
Foster parents often struggle to understand why the child does not love them back or displays behaviors that fall into the dysregulation category. Sometimes the child will not allow the caregiver even to brush their hair or have physical contact with them. Self-preservation and fear of suffering another loss prevent the child from forming a new attachment.
In the same way that you have a past, your foster child does too. This is why It is important to seek understanding before making an assumption. Suppose you are concerned that your foster child is not eating all of their food, but you know they are hungry. Some kids may not eat their food because they come from a place with insufficient food, and the child may be unsure if it is okay to eat their entire serving all at once. Asking questions and letting the child know they are in a safe place is a good starting point for addressing these fears. For a traumatized child who lives in a world of unknowns, reassurance of safety is one way to develop a sense of trust.
Foster parents should acknowledge the culture and background of their foster child. You can learn so much by asking questions or having a simple conversation. Tell me how you celebrated your birthday in the past. What are your favorite meals? Do you like to help cook?
Think about how you can incorporate their culture into your home. Your environment should be as malleable as possible to increase the child’s comfort; keep in mind that your foster child is expected to be flexible in an entirely new situation as well.
Reflect on the cultural needs of the child based on their history. There is a person’s heritage, a culture of homelessness, and an overall sensitivity to the world in which they live. We want to shed the bad parts and focus on the good rituals that were a part of their life. Ask, did your family have Sunday dinners? Did you spend time with your extended family? Finding ways to reinforce good memories and traditions in your home will help the child feel safe and accepted.
There are additional things that you can do to help facilitate the development of trust and security between you and your foster child. Find opportunities to brush their hair, make small touches on their face, or simply make eye contact. Remember to ask permission to touch first; asking for consent will reinforce their sense of safety.
Older children may prove more challenging, but think about introducing age-appropriate things they may like. Something like taking them out to lunch and not having an agenda, or doing something unexpectedly fun can make a big impact. Think about sharing your fears and successes; we learn so much about the child through their social worker, but the child knows nothing about the people in the home they are entering. Often, noncompliance comes from the unknown, and sharing information about yourself can help children feel more at ease. However, be sure to avoid divulging information that is too personal.
Thinking about how behavior is connected to attachment, we also know that children tend to regress developmentally every time they are moved to a new home. When you consider all that the child has endured in their life—disrupted attachments, abuse, neglect, and an average of seven different foster homes—it is not surprising that behavior issues can manifest as a result of their inner struggles.
Pathways’ Mosaic Behavioral Health can help caregivers recognize and identify behavior triggers and guide them in implementing techniques that will gradually bring down the walls of foster children and create trust. You should also consider Trust-Based Relational Intervention (TBRI) Training, an attachment-based, trauma-informed intervention designed to address the needs of children who have experienced multiple placements, toxic stress, trauma, abuse, and neglect. If you are interested in learning more about upcoming training dates, contact Pathways’ TBRI Training Manager by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Pathways Youth and Family Services, in partnership with Superior HealthPlan, offers crisis intervention services to foster families and caregivers. Superior’s Behavioral Health Hotline offers emergency assessment and crisis intervention 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If a child or youth in Superior HealthPlan experiences a crisis, please call the Superior Behavioral Health Crisis Line at 1-866-912-6283 and press (*) to be directed to a Behavioral Health Crisis Team staff member for assistance. Turning Point mobile crisis teams are available Monday–Friday from 1-9 p.m. in Harris and Bexar Counties.
Prospective foster parents can sign up for a virtual orientation by visiting our website.