One of the many stigmas about displaced children (children in foster care or other out-of-home placements) is that they are unmanageable or difficult. A simple Google search will tell you that foster children are at higher risk for dropping out of school, drug use, and involvement in the legal system which appears to lend weight to that stigma. However, what cannot be seen by looking only at statistics or attrition rates is individual history—what factors contribute to the behaviors that are so frequently stereotyped as belonging to “troubled kids.” There are a number of factors that contribute to an individual’s behavior and it would be short sighted to apply a blanket label to multiple people without considering those factors.
One significant factor to take into account is the level of adjustment that these children must endure. The kids who have been labeled with these stereotypes usually deal with a great deal of change in a short amount of time. Due to the limited availability of foster homes, children can end up hours away from everyone and everything they have ever known trying to adjust to a new school, a new residence, and making new friends. The sheer number of changes that these children endure is often the underlying cause of the anger and frustration that is exhibited by them.
Another possible source of disruptive behaviors in children is their individual circumstances. Children who have had to be removed from their biological families often come from environments that have been chaotic. They may have had minimal examples of healthy conflict resolution and, as a result, seek to resolve their concerns in the only way that they know. It is a well-documented phenomenon that children imitate the adults in their lives, so it’s not much of a surprise when children from chaotic or abusive environments act like the adults from those environments.
And, last but not least, we must consider the power of personalities. Let’s face it, not everyone gets along with everyone all of the time. This is not an excuse for inappropriate or disruptive behaviors but an acknowledgement of the fact that it is difficult for people, especially children or adolescents, to maintain a pleasant persona in the face of unpleasant circumstances. Adults often expect children who have been placed in another home to be grateful and appreciative of their newfound surroundings but are impatient with those children when they express dislike or disinterest in those surroundings. In some cases, the mere expression of disinterest can come across as disrespectful which creates more tension and conflict.
There are a lot of unseen factors that influence behaviors; however, when an entire group of people are subjected to stereotyping it becomes difficult for them to overcome. Children, in particular, will occasionally embrace those stereotypes simply because they believe it is what everyone else expects of them.
It is imperative that we look at children in foster care as individuals rather than as a part of a system in order to better address their needs. These children are often seen as aggressive or defiant, and the truth is that, sometimes, they are. Sometimes, kids who have been separated from their family experience episodes of aggression or defiance that seem completely out of place for the circumstances. But when you think about it, really think about it, how out of place is it? Can you imagine how you might respond in a similar situation?
And how would you want others to think of you?