Trauma-informed Care Helps Youth in Foster Care Succeed
Last updated: November 3, 2021, at 10:38 a.m. PT
Originally published: October 27, 2021, at 9:25 a.m. PT
A child can be placed into foster care for many varied and unique reasons, but all youth in foster care share in the commonality that they have experienced the trauma of being removed from their home and their sense of normalcy. Many children are placed with their extended family during their time in foster care and may be able to maintain a version of home, however the majority of children in Washington are placed in licensed foster homes with caregivers they are unfamiliar with.
Being separated from their family and experiencing the unpredictability of foster care, coupled with lasting harm from potential abuse or neglect which led to the child’s removal from their family, can have a significant impact on a child their whole life. According to The Journal of Pediatrics, children in foster care have more mental and physical health conditions compared to their peers who are not in foster care, including being twice as likely to have a learning disability, five times more likely to have anxiety, and six times more likely to have behavioral problems.
Through training and certification with the Y, prospective foster parents are made aware of these potential issues and how to respond to help the child process the trauma and get additional help. With pre-licensing training about childhood development, how trauma can show up for kids and teens, and how caregivers can understand and manage challenging or new behaviors, prospective foster parents are prepared to make the best impact on a child in need.
The Alliance for Child Welfare has a wealth of training available to foster parents on caring for children impacted by trauma. In this article, staff and foster parents in the Y’s foster care program share some helpful insights about caring for kids and teens experiencing foster care that can help you reflect on if fostering is a good fit for you and your family.
Four Tips to Becoming a Successful Foster Parent, from Y Families and Staff
1. Remember that they are first and foremost kids.
While youth experiencing foster care are certainly facing challenges many of their peers are not, it’s important to remember that youth in care are still kids. They are young people navigating life and growing up just like your kiddos, or your neighbors’ kiddos, and deserve to be celebrated and nurtured just like any other child or teenager.
“Kids in foster care are kids just like every other kid,” said Jen and Angie, who are Y foster parents “They have good days and bad days, maybe some of that roller coaster goes up a little bit higher or down a little bit lower because of their history, but they are just kids.” –
Elizabeth, a Y case manager, also advices not to believe your assumptions about youth in foster care. “There's a lot of stereotypes about teens that just are not true! Being a teen is hard, but being a teen in foster care comes with its own set of unique challenges,” said Elizabeth. “Teens are amazing insightful young folks who have so much to offer.”
2. Remember to be empathetic to how youth are impacted by trauma and how it shows up in their behaviors.
Children in care may display difficult behaviors that could be new for some caretakers. It’s important to understand how trauma affects the brain, and to not take their behavior personally, as often behavior is communicating something that a youth can’t put into words. Early childhood trauma can show up as developmental delays, in children’s eating behaviors, in their soothing behavior and emotional functioning, in inappropriate modeling, and sometimes can show up as aggression. The more foster parents can learn ahead of time, the better equipped you will be to support youth in care and prevent misunderstanding their behaviors.
“Trauma is not something that can just ’be fixed’ or ‘loved out of them.’ It was a way of life that came with its own survival skills that may not make sense to those who did not live in that environment.” advises Elizabeth. “Give it time, rejoice in the good days, and its ok to feel lost in the bad days. Don't go into this thinking you'll ‘save’ anyone. Know that you're just giving them a safe space to learn a new world.”
Crystal, a Y child and family therapist echoes the need to listen and be patient. “Youth impacted by trauma express themselves in different ways and might even struggle in expressing themselves in a healthy way. In addition to being an adolescent, it can be quite overwhelming for these youth. Being a safe, consistent, and stable person for them to go to and to feel comforted, not judged, and heard is important.”
– As a Y foster parent, Barbara offers a reminder to step back from time to time and be open to rethinking how to help. “Sometimes we need to find out what does being ’okay’ mean to the child -- it may not be the same thing for everybody. Being ‘okay’ looks different for different people, including children in care.”
3. Remember that teenagers need placement too.
Teens may not be the largest percentage of youth in care, but they do face the most barriers to finding stable homes. Most licensed foster parents are interested in caring for younger children, and some teens find themselves staying the night in hotels or state offices because a home cannot be identified. While caring for teens may come with a new set of challenges for some caretakers, it’s important to consider taking placement of older youth and asking yourself what it would take for you and your family to open your home to a teen.
Y foster parent Sidney shares that she specifically chose to provide care for youth with higher needs and older youth, “because these kiddos need placement too.” She shares, “there is a gift to managing teens and being relatable to them without sounding like a drill sergeant and trying to take control of their lives. They are finding their independence and need the space to find it.”
“Every kid in foster care is someday going to be a teenager who was in foster care,” said Y foster parents Ashleigh and Quinn. “So whatever you’re imagining you can’t deal with, you might well be dealing with down the road as kids grow up. It’s not that there’s easy kids and hard kids; they are all kids in this traumatic system. It’s so common to hear from foster parents about who they will or will not take. It’s not about what the child needs to do to change to be in my home, it’s about what can I do to become somebody who could take those kids. If you feel any kind of hesitation for any population, find ways to gain comfortability and experience, like taking day respite, or overnight respite, or volunteering with teenagers. Capacity does matters, but where can you push that a little bit? And if nothing else, what can you read to learn more about the perspective of these kids? What can you listen to? Can you volunteer somewhere? I think we’re trying to constantly look at what we can do and what we can’t do and how we can bridge that gap.”
Megan, a Y foster parent, has taken the time to offer respite and new self-learning in surprising ways. “The respite and emergent care that we’ve done has felt really smooth and lovely. We’ve loved getting to serve kids that we don’t have the right set-up to serve long-term. We’ve loved getting to have weekends with teenagers – that was something we didn’t expect and have really enjoyed Crystal, a Y child and family therapist has seen how teens in foster care navigate the pressures of adolescence and foster care. “Patience, compassion, and understanding are important qualities to hold while fostering teenagers,” said Crystal. “Teens show appreciation differently than younger kids. They are still kids themselves, but are trying to grow and become independent at the same time.”
4. Always remember to be youth-centered throughout your journey.
“Your loyalty shouldn’t be to your calendar and events, it should be to the emotional safety of the kids in your care.” – Megan, Y foster parent
“Every way that we are affected by this child, the child is affected infinitely more.” – Ashleigh and Quinn, Y foster parents
“The relationship with the kids is the thing that should drive you because that’s where it’s really amazing and wonderful and rewarding.” – Angie and Jen, Y foster parents
“You can’t know a kid without seeing how great they are. With the kid placed with us, we heard all the time from professionals that she’s amazing and of course she is! So is every single other teen in care. Every kid who is “hard to place” is unique and special – there’s not just a couple shining stars. They are doing what they are doing for good reason and those things have kept them safe thus far. It is an honor and joy to be in their lives. It is rewarding to know these kids and ever be even remotely trusted by them.” – Ashleigh and Quinn, Y foster parents
Whether foster parenting is right for your family or not, all of us impact the world that these young people grow up in. Foster Parents Ashleigh & Quinn pointed out that, “your kids go to school and are in community with these kids. Everything we do impacts those children. So what can we do to make it better for them? Parenting these kids does include you whether you care for them directly or not.” If you're interested, see more advice from Y foster families or learn about fostering at the Y.
- Podcast: Trauma, The Brain, and TBRI (Trust-Based Relational Intervention)
- Resources on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)
- Seven part webinar series on Parenting Teens from the Alliance for Child Welfare
Resources for teens in foster care: