Have you ever been looking forward to something only to have it fall through at the last minute? Have you ever told yourself not to get your hopes up about something, all the while you’re secretly fantasizing about how wonderful it will be? Do you remember how it felt when you learned that what you had been hoping for wasn’t going to happen? What if that feeling of disappointment was perpetuated on a basis that was so consistent that you believed it was permanent?
Unfortunately, that is the sad reality of many children in foster care or out of home placements. Too often, children expect that they will be going home in a week, two weeks, a month, or some other time frame, resulting in elation and expectation on the part of that child–and then it doesn’t happen. These children are left with feelings of betrayal, bitterness, and anger. They are angry with their parents, their caseworkers, their foster parents, the judge, their school teachers, or anyone else they think could possibly have made the situation end differently. They believe that someone, somewhere, has let them down.
After going through these moments of heartbreak, the behavior that is regularly seen includes anger outbursts, noncompliance, defiance, and other behaviors for which children require redirection and discipline. But what they also need is patience and compassion. Children lash out when they are hurting and it’s easy to look at that behavior and determine that they need stricter guidelines and more consistent consequences. However, by focusing only on the negative behaviors and not addressing the underlying causes, adults can continue to inflict emotional damage.
Children who have experienced trauma of any kind are more likely to have behavioral disruptions and without individuals who can compassionately guide them through those moments, they are more likely to become apathetic to their circumstances. They may reach the point when they no longer respond to redirection—they may not even respond to positive stimulus. Caregivers must then appropriately decide how to provide both support and leadership to sufficiently assist that child in constructing effective coping skills.
Caregivers must be patient, allowing children a significant amount of grace, while simultaneously providing an environment in which they can learn to operate within a set of structured guidelines. While the kneejerk reaction to negative behaviors may be frustration and annoyance, adults need to present an atmosphere of empathy in order to give the child reassurance that they can have hopes and expectations and that not everything is a disappointment.