When children with unresolved grief and loss enter a foster home, they bring their pain with them. Their main priority is self-protection against future loss and vulnerability. These children avoid intimacy, closeness and dependence at all costs. They are fearful of ever loving again, leading to a profound sense of loneliness and mistrust. The script running through their mind is: “If I get close, I’ll get hurt,” or “If I get close, you will see me for who I really am, someone unlovable and not good enough.”
Wounded children can only deal with this intense fear of abandonment by armoring themselves against it. They shut down their hearts to love both physically and psychologically. Fear of abandonment is a force that runs their lives. Even though they maintain elaborate defenses against experiencing closeness, they still have a great need for it.
At the same time, these kids are also motivated by a desperate need for power and control because they cannot trust others to be in charge. They are telling themselves, “If I am in control, I am safe.”
Internal working models, or core beliefs, are formed early in life based on how caregivers behave toward children. So, sensitive and responsive parenting result in positive core beliefs. The child feels safe, loved, learns to trust and views themselves in a positive way. The internal dialogue is: “I am worthwhile, competent and lovable.” Conversely, abusive, neglectful and otherwise frightening parenting leads to negative core beliefs. The child is afraid, does not trust their caregiver and has a negative self-view. The internal dialogue is: “I am bad, helpless and unlovable.”
Children are often placed in foster care because of neglect, abuse and abandonment. Not surprisingly, they commonly have negative core beliefs and insecure and compromised attachment styles even before they enter the system. Often, children are separated from their abusive or neglectful families in their early years when their brain growth and development is most active. The parts of the brain that govern learning, self-control, coping with stress and emotions and personality traits are established during this time and neural connections are significantly influenced by abuse, neglect and attachment disruptions.
A recent study of children 5 years old and younger in foster care found 86 percent were avoidantly attached, regardless of the type of maltreatment they experienced in their biological families. Early separation and loss cause babies and young children to become behaviorally and biochemically dysregulated. The absence of consistent and supportive attachment figures leaves children alone in dealing with stress. This results in children who are anxious, impulsive, lack self-control and cannot manage their emotions and stress.
To adapt to past unhealthy home environments and adverse conditions, children develop survival strategies. When placed, they view foster care with distrust and are generally resistant to accepting care, guidance and support. Remember, they need to control others and cannot trust or rely on caregivers. They turn away from the caregivers, sending the message, “I don’t need you; I can take care of myself.” Helplessness, open hostility and defiance are among their coping strategies.
Foster parents often report, the more they attempt to offer comfort and care, the more distrustful and angry their foster child becomes. Foster children are protecting themselves from anticipated hurt by rejecting and alienating the foster parent. We have seen infants show this defensive and rejecting behavior to even the most sensitive and loving foster parent.
Attachment issues, behaviors and coping strategies are magnified in older foster children due to long-term exposure to maltreatment, the likelihood of multiple moves and placement failures on top of unresolved emotional issues with birth families.
Foster parents must understand the child’s defensive attitude and behavior when first coming into their homes. In a later article in this series, we will discuss strategies foster parents can employ to help deal with the walls foster children build to protect themselves.