Girl with suitcase

Foster Parenting Dilemmas: Understanding Puzzling Behaviors

Posted on May 13, 2016 by

All children and teenagers exhibit challenging behaviors at times. Usually parents have an idea where such behaviors are coming from. Is the child hungry, cranky, or perhaps experiencing typical challenges and insecurities of the teenage years?

When we understand a behavior, it’s easier to respond in a way that is helpful for the child and comfortable for the parent. Often foster children act in ways that seem to make no sense to their foster parents. A young foster child who is desperate for playmates may consistently push away other children. Or an adolescent foster daughter may act out before an event she has been eagerly anticipating. A foster child may hoard food in his room, attracting both “critters” and the confusion of his foster parents, who provide plenty of food for their family.

A concept called the “invisible suitcase” can be a helpful way to understand such puzzling behaviors: http://bit.ly/1T1cDWR. Children in foster care typically bring with them just a few physical possessions, but along with that they bring the sum total of all of their life experiences. These experiences are the contents of the invisible suitcase.

If a child has learned that he’s not lovable, he carries that feeling in the invisible suitcase he brings to his foster home. And he’ll likely act accordingly as if to ensure that others affirm his negative view of himself. If a child has learned that she can’t trust adults, she carries that in her invisible suitcase and may be resistant to trusting a new adult in her life.

Rest assured, it’s not personal! The behavior that makes no sense to you likely makes perfect sense to your foster child.

You can help unpack that invisible suitcase. Over time, as you provide a healing, loving and consistent set of experiences, the contents of the suitcase will disappear. This will help your foster child let go of the suitcase and move on to tackling the more typical challenges of growing up. We’ll address some specific strategies for managing challenging behaviors in foster care in a future post.

And remember, you’re not alone. These puzzling behaviors can be difficult to manage. Reach out to fellow foster parents and to the social worker at your foster care agency.

Note: For more information on the concept of the invisible suitcase check out http://bit.ly/1T1cDWR on the website of The National Child Traumatic Stress Network.

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