Disciplining Foster Children with Love
Every child deserves to be loved and accepted, and to experience safety and security in their family. With the love and nurture they receive from young, they will be better able to accept discipline as the loving training it is meant to be. However, growing up in a loving home is often not the case for foster children.
Instead, they may have experienced abuse or attachment issues and as a result, do not respond well to traditional methods of discipline like “time outs” or grounding. In this case, parents will likely have to think of alternative techniques to disciplining your foster children. Here are some basic principles that you can keep in mind with regards to discipline:
Create a climate of safety and trust. It is first and foremost important to keep the bigger picture in mind. Rather than trying to fix the problem behavior, the focus should instead be on creating safety and security so that your child can experience emotional connectedness and healing. In other words, your primary goal should be to establish an environment that will encourage attachment and trust. When this is accomplished, children can then begin to understand that discipline is done out of love and a desire to protect them from harm, not to inflict them with pain.
Remain calm. When children are disciplined, they will often experience an aroused state of fear. Discipline methods that heighten their stress level and physiological arousal, like shouting and threatening, simply reinforce emotional responses and behaviors that you want to extinguish. On the other hand, when you calm down and connect with your children even when you are correcting their behaviors, you will create an opportunity for them to learn from the experience.
Provide parental interaction and love. Parents may sometimes implement “time outs” for misbehavior, which works for securely attached children who respond from a position of wanting to please their parents and be in their presence. They will be able to calm down and reflect on their actions on their own. Foster children on the other hand normally benefit more from time with their parents, who can calm them down and help them form appropriate behaviors instead. For example, if your child pulls the dog’s hair, gently, but firmly, take his hands in yours and look him in the face and say, “Gentle touches. We don’t use hands to hurt.” If he makes a mess in the kitchen, say, “I see there is a mess in the kitchen. Let’s clean up together.” The joint effort will enhance the connection between you and your child.
Be specific with your expectations. Be very specific in your explanation of desired behaviors. If you want your child to make her bed with the sheets tucked in, and the stuffed toys nicely displayed, say so. Oftentimes we expect our children to know these things without our articulating them, or expect too much of them. Instead, it is wise to be familiar with their capabilities and tailor your requests accordingly so their self-worth can be built up by incremental success.
Be aware of what you are communicating nonverbally. In order to protect themselves, some foster children may be vigilant to read their parents’ attitudes without a word being spoken. Hence, it is important to be aware of your tone, word choice and body language. You may learn over time that certain words or actions set your child off due to prior bad experiences. Once you are aware of these triggers, you will be better able to creatively work around them.
Very often, foster children likely need the things they do not want and want the things they do not need. They may want to be in control to block out any possibility of getting hurt, but in actual fact they need their parents’ safe control to protect them. They may not want to be loved or to love for fear of being disappointed, but in reality, that is the very thing that will begin to change them. Ultimately, it is this loving control that will prepare these children to learn correct behaviors in a meaningful way.
Adapted from Disciplining Adopted Children by Sandra Lundberg. © 2015 Focus on the Family Singapore Ltd. All rights reserved. Used by permission.