Generally, a child will develop certain skills and abilities as he ages. It is important to remember that what may be normal for one child can be different for another. Children placed in foster care often exhibit significant behavior problems as compared to those children who come from traditional homes. Those children who have experienced abuse, neglect, or trauma in their lives are more likely to be delayed in development, or may even regress to a younger stage, due to the stress they suffer from. Many foster children also suffer from internalizing their concerns and fears, causing additional harm as a result. Foster children are also more likely to fall further behind in their development while under foster care supervision. In order to better help your foster child, it is essential that you become familiar with his development. Last month, we looked at the first two stages. This month, we continue with the other stages. A list of what to expect for each stage of normal development, as well as what you might expect from a foster child at each particular age category both follow. Also included are some guidelines and suggestions to consider as you try and best assist your foster child through each age group development.
School Age: 5-12
- Appetite increases
- Likes to play with peers
- May begin to lie, or tell on others
- Becomes sick quicker due to exposure at school
- Becomes more private around adults
- Very active physically
- May become more argumentative as he seeks his own identity
- Highly competitive
- Sensitive to own shortcomings and personal failures
Over one third of the children in foster care are between the ages of 5-12. While some of these children are placed under foster care supervision for the first time, many more suffer from multiple placements. The more a child is moved from home to home, and from placement to placement, the more difficult it is for that child to place trust in someone. Disturbingly, some of these children may come to believe that they are unwanted, unloved, and unimportant. They may lash out to their foster parents and other adults as a result. Along with this, schools may be a place where they also do not feel they belong, causing problems in their educational journey, too. Like all children, they wish to be loved, and strongly want a family to belong to.
Those children between the ages of 5-12 and who have suffered from abuse and neglect tend to cling to adults. Even though they enjoy being around others their age, their peers, they truly want to be around adults and parental figures. This includes you, as a foster parent. You may find that your foster child in this age group wants to be with you at all times. He may cling to you when you leave, interrupt conversations with others just so he can be heard, and will seek to find acceptance in your eyes. He may worry about visiting with his own birth parents, as he might feel that he has to choose between the two of you. Some foster children struggle with the feelings that they are betraying their own biological family by not only living with you, but coming to enjoy the time with you and love you, as well.
These children also may tend to feel insecure, and take this insecurity out on over eating. Often times, foster children over eat, and gorge themselves on large amounts of food. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner time may become times where he tries to eat anything placed in front of him. At the same time, anorexia may be a result of his insecurity, too. His self esteem might be quite low, as he denies himself any sense of accomplishment, refusing any praise given to him. Learning disabilities are common in foster children who fall in this age group, and he might have difficulty adjusting to his new classroom environment, as well as to his teachers and fellow students. Your foster child may also have intense bouts of anger and frustration at the situation he is in, and will likely not know how to properly handle his emotions. Defiance, aggression, and destructive behavior may result. Those children who have experienced sexual trauma may also express interest in inappropriate sexual behavior, or become more sexually mature than children their own age.
One of the ways you can help your foster child is to have him meet with a counselor on a regular basis. Talk to his caseworker about setting up regular appointments with a trained youth counselor who can help him understand the feelings he is having. Encourage him to share his feeling with you, the caseworker, and a counselor. Speak to him one on one daily on a personal level. Find out what he is interested in, such as hobbies, sports, and other activities, and find ways in which he can participate, giving him your full support and encouragement. See that he exercises on a regular basis, whether it is through sports or through some fun outdoor activities at your own home. As he probably came from an environment that did not provide for him healthy eating habits, make sure you provide for him a nutritious diet, and encourage him to eat healthy snacks. When his body begins the process of puberty, answer all of his questions, and see that he gets plenty of sleep each night. Find appropriate chores he can do at home, which will give him a sense of responsibility, trust, and a sense of belonging. Help him with his school work, and communicate with his teachers on a regular basis. Encourage him to make new friends at school. After checking with their parents, encourage him to invite them over to your home for friendly visits and supervised play time. Most of all, speak to him in positive terms, build up his self esteem, and give him plenty of love.
- Completes puberty
- Growth spurts most common; probably reach adult height by end of teen years
- Understands he is a sexual being, and may experiment sexually
- Begin to consider his future
- Will want to sleep more
- Will seek greater independence from adult figures; may become moody
- Concerned about body and clothing image
- Influenced more by friends and peers
- Will question authority; may become more argumentative
Each stage of development can be difficult for a foster parent, but perhaps the teen years are the most challenging. This is an age where teenagers try to find their own identity, and is often a time where teens try to “cut the apron strings,” so to speak, in an attempt to gain self independence. If he has been in the foster care system for some time, he will have more than likely moved from placement to placement. Years of anger, frustration, sadness, loneliness, and broken trust will be difficult to break. You will have to have great patience with your foster teen, as he struggles with conflicting emotions as well as his role and place within your family.
Trust is one issue he will have a very difficult time with. Whether this is his first placement, coming directly from his birth parent’s house, or has had multiple placements, he may feel that the adults in his life have betrayed him. He has lost everything he knows and loves, and is now in a strange home with people who are not his parents. He will build up walls around himself, in an attempt to safe guard his feelings. You will likely have a hard time breaking through these walls, and trust will be difficult to establish, as he believes that he has no reason to place trust in you. Lies and mistruths are often common with foster teens, and you will have a difficult time knowing when he is sincere, and when he is misleading you.
As a result of being removed from his home, he may have anger towards adults, and express that anger towards you. He may challenge your rules and expectations within your home, and argue with you about them, resenting the fact that he is being forced to live with people he does not know. Your foster teen may try to breaks as many of your rules, and make your life as miserable as possible, in the hope of you asking that he be removed from your home, believing that he will be returned to his biological family members. He may also seem highly withdrawn and depressed, and may not wish to be included in any of your family activities, along with any sort of social interaction. He may not appreciate all you do for him, and will seldom thank you for meeting his needs, providing for him, and showing him kindness and love. As he has been placed into your home against his will, he may runaway
As his body continues to change physically, he will become self absorbed. Hormonally, he will continue to develop, and his body will soon grow as he advances towards adulthood. Peer acceptance will be important to him, and he will seek to try and fit in with his fellow students. If he has moved often due to multiple placements, his school records may not be complete, and he may struggle in school. Learning disabilities may place him in a grade lower than other students in school, causing anxiety and embarrassment on his behalf. Behavior in school may also be challenging, as he lashes out in anger towards teachers and those in authority within the school.
Perhaps the most important step you can take in helping your foster teen is building trust with him. This will take time, and you will have to have patience; do not expect him to come to your home trusting all you say and do. Give him space and allow him time to learn to trust you. Do not make promises to him that you are sure you are unable to keep. Once a promise is broken by you, it gives him further evidence that he cannot trust you. Talk to him on a personal level; find out what his interests are and encourage him to pursue those. Show interest in him, as well as in his biological family. Help him enroll in after school clubs and activities. Help him to research possible careers for him when he graduates from high school, and inform him that dropping out of high school will have severe negative consequences for him. Encourage him to express his feelings and emotions to you, as well as to a counselor, if necessary. He will need to learn that expressing his feelings is natural and healthy instead of keeping them inside.
Establish rules and consequences for your household as soon as possible. Assign him chores and responsibilities in your house, allowing him to feel part of the family as well as give him a sense of importance and self worth. As he will want to establish a sense of identity and independence from you and your family, allow him to be a teenager; give him permission to try and fit in with the other students at his school with clothing styles, as long as they are appropriate. Set up a homework station for him at home, perhaps at the kitchen table, and create a time where he is to attend to his homework each night, perhaps when he gets home, or after dinner. Let him know that you will help him with his homework as much as you are able to do so. Do not allow him to have computer technology in his room, alone and unsupervised.
No matter the age or ability of your foster child, he needs you. When you take a foster child into your home, you are making a commitment to “foster” that child. Remember, “foster” means to take care of, to help grow, and help develop another person. Your foster child may not express gratitude, return love, or show appreciation for what you are trying to do, but it is important to keep in mind that you are making a difference, a difference that could indeed last a life time.