4 Reasons Why Your Foster Child is Raging

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In my last blog post and my most recent YouTube video, I began responding to a request from several members of The Flourishing Foster Parent community who asked me to talk about how to handle it when your foster child exhibits explosive emotional outbursts. I shared in those posts that before we can get into how to handle those big expressions of emotion, we need to take a moment to try to understand some of our kids’ back story and try to step into their shoes. I call it the “trauma on top of trauma” that affects many children in foster care, when they are removed from the only sense of “normal” they’ve ever known and placed with strangers.

While there are certainly many layers to a child’s emotional journey, and many reasons a child might become emotionally escalated, there are four things I have seen over and over in my years as a foster parent that often result in kids feeling and expressing Very Big Feelings.

Knowing the why behind a child’s challenging behavior can help us have more compassion and figure out constructive ways to help them when they are “in the red.” It’s important for trauma-informed caregivers to pay special attention to what is driving a child’s rage, so we can respond appropriately and meet them where they’re at.

First, children need to feel a sense of empowerment and agency. They need to feel like they have some say in the things that matter in their lives. For many foster youth, this is all but gone. Those in foster care often feel completely disempowered, and while kids who need to feel like they have some control in their lives might respond in many different ways, some will lash out in anger—often in big and prolonged ways.

Second, when someone experiences trauma, they often experience one of three panic responses: fight, flight, or freeze. The fight response will come out in different ways, which may include:

  • Crying
  • Hands in fists, desire to punch, rip
  • Flexed/tight jaw, grinding teeth, snarl
  • Fight in eyes, glaring, fight in voice
  • Desire to stomp, kick, smash with legs, feet
  • Feelings of anger/rage
  • Homicidal/suicidal feelings
  • Knotted stomach/nausea, burning stomach
  • Metaphors like bombs, volcanoes erupting
  • (Source: TraumaRecovery.ca)

When someone’s trauma response is to fight, and they are in the midst of “trauma on top of trauma,” they will likely be easily provoked and rapidly escalate emotionally, resulting in massive tantrums, destructive behavior, or prolonged yelling/screaming.

Third, your foster child may never have seen healthy emotional regulation. When it comes to parenting (or any kind of teaching, really), more is caught than taught. If a child has only lived in chaotic environments, where they frequently witnessed domestic violence or other kinds of conflict between caregivers, they will likely lack tools for healthy emotional regulation. If they have seen a lot of yelling and raging, they are more likely to yell and rage.

Fourth, your foster child may have neurological differences that stunt their ability to regulate their emotions. For example, those who were exposed to illicit substances (drugs and alcohol) in utero may experience stunted brain development, which can affect the frontal lobe of the brain—a.k.a. “The Control Panel,” which controls emotional responses and judgement, among other things. When that portion of the brain is affected, a person has a much harder time regulating his or her own emotions and emotional reactions. The frontal lobe is also the part of the brain most likely to be damaged in cases of severe abuse or injury. Such brain injuries can make it very hard for a child to be logical or rational—especially when that child is feeling threatened (panicked) or provoked.

I’ll be the first to tell you—being aware of the reasons for a child’s challenging behavior does not always make it any easier to handle. But it is a very good starting point if you want to develop your skills as a foster parent and help the children entrusted to your care develop healthy emotional responses.

We’ve covered some back story and some of the “why’s” for those hard outbursts, tantrums, and rages. In the next post, I’ll talk about five ways to prepare for—and respond to—frequent fits of rage.

That First Night in Foster Care

Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

Try for a moment to put yourself into your foster child’s shoes.

Close your eyes and imagine you are with your mom and your baby brother. You are staying at a motel and Spongebob Squarepants is on TV. Suddenly, someone knocks at the door and two police officers come in and start talking to your mom. She starts to cry or yell, and then one takes you by the hand and tells you to come with him while the other one picks up your baby brother.

No one tells you to grab your toy, so you don’t. You just get into the back of his police car. Your mom is crying and you’re scared. The policeman gives you a sucker—he even says you can have two!—and then he takes you to an office building, where you sit in a room with some toys, but no one to play with you. They take your brother to another room (he is asleep in his car seat). Adults with folders and papers in their hands come and go, talking quietly with each other and smiling occasionally at you.

Then, after some time (a few hours perhaps?), another adult you’ve never met introduces herself to you. She may say that her job is to help keep you safe (or something like that), and she tells you to come with her to her car. You’re going to have a sleepover with some “nice people” tonight. She grabs a backpack from a closet that (you will find out later) has clothes you’ve never seen and a toothbrush that isn’t yours and a someone else’s stuffed animal.

Your baby brother does not come with you.

You drive for a long time. The person who is driving stops at Burger King and buys you a kid’s meal, then you arrive at a house you’ve never been to before. You walk inside the house and a strange woman smiles at you, introduces herself and shows you the room where you’re going to sleep.

It smells funny in this house.

The bed is so different from where you sleep at home with your mom. In fact, you sleep with her every night and now you’re in a strange room, in a strange bed by yourself. The woman who lives there opens the backpack you brought and there are some pajamas inside. She tells you to put them on. She saids it’s time to “brush your teeth,” but this is not something you usually do, so you look at her without moving. She says it again, and you don’t know what you’re supposed to do. Finally, she finds the toothbrush inside the bag (or she gets one she already had) and puts some toothpaste on it. You take the toothpaste and suck it off of the toothbrush and the woman tells you to brush your teeth, but you don’t know what she means, so you just stare at her. Finally, she takes the toothbrush and tells you to open your mouth, and she starts scrubbing your teeth. It feels weird and you don’t like it and you’re starting to feel really mad. But you don’t know this person, you don’t know what she’ll do, so you just go along with it—for now.

Finally, she tells you to pick out a book and sit on the bed. None of the books you like are there, but you choose one from the shelf. She sits next to you and starts to read. She touches your hand and it feels weird.

She feels weird.

You miss your mom. You wonder about your baby brother. You do not want to be here, but no one asked you what you want. The woman finishes the book, tells you to lie down and tucks the blanket around you. It’s doesn’t feel like your blanket, and it smells weird. She turns a nightlight on, but it’s not very bright and when she leaves the room, you turn the light back on. The woman comes back in, tells you it’s late and time for sleep and turns the light back off.

You hate her. This is not how your mom does it. Your mom stays up late and so do you. You play or watch TV until you fall asleep. It is so strange to be lying in this bed, alone and wide awake. But what can you do? Where can you go?

You lie there feeling afraid, angry and confused. You have no idea why you’re here. You have no idea how long you’ll be here. You have no idea when you’ll see your mom again. You start to cry.

At some point, you fall asleep.

# # #

In the next few posts, I’m going to respond to a question I’ve been asked several times: “How do you handle it when your foster child rages?” In fact, this is the topic we’ll explore on this Thursday’s Flourishing Foster Parent Coaching Call.

But before I dig in to the “HOW,” I want to explore the “WHY,” and that requires taking some time to step into your foster child’s shoes (as much as is possible) when they come into your care. As much as you try to be a kind, good foster parent, the bottom line is you are a stranger, and everything about your house and your toys and your food is strange.

It’s really important that we foster parents internalize this truth: the experience of coming into your home is yet another traumatic event in this child’s life.

In the next post I’ll dig in a bit more to the “WHY” behind your foster child’s “Big Feelings,” which can often be expressed with fits of rage. Then, after we have explored the “WHY,” we’ll also get into some ideas for “HOW” to respond.

Happy (Day After) Mother’s Day!

Happy (day after) Mother’s Day to all of you who mother!

Foster moms, step-moms, aunties, best-friend’s moms, and anyone else who functions as a mothering figure in a young person’s life: bless you!

I pray you’ll be encouraged by this short message. I recorded it years ago, yet it is from my heart today!!