I’ve been thinking a lot lately about foster children and rage.
A few people in The Flourishing Foster Parent asked me to cover it in a coaching call, which I did last week. I also did a YouTube video about it and wrote a blog post about it. (I encourage you to check both of those out before reading this post!)
For many good reasons, children in foster care can deal with some pretty big feelings, which can come out as anger, violence, and rage. And because we live with those big feelings day in and day out, many of us foster parents also deal with our own big feelings. While not every child in my care has experienced this, a number of them have, and I’ve learned that it is very important for me as a foster parent to be prepared and learn as much as I can about why my kids are “in the red” so often and what I can do to help them grow more emotionally healthy.
I’ve also learned that is is very important for me as a foster parent to stay ahead of my own big feelings and to manage them before they manage me!
Here are a few tools that I find helpful for anticipating and responding to the big feelings that sometimes erupt in my home:
- Plan ahead. Anticipate the conditions that might lend themselves to emotional challenges. Does your child have a visit with his family today? Make sure he fuels his body well and gets a good night of sleep the night before, and don’t plan other activities after the visit. Allow him to have down time or a movie afterwards so he doesn’t have to work too hard to manage his own emotions when they are likely raw from the visit. Carry healthy, high-protein snacks and hydration to ward off “hanger,” and communicate, communicate, communicate with your child. Kids really do best when they are aware of what is happening and are not caught off guard with something like a visit or abrupt shift in schedules.
- Notes/reminders. I actually put notes around (and sometimes write on my hand!) reminding me to “Just Breathe” and “Walk Away!” when things are stressful. Kids aren’t the only ones who respond to stress with fight, flight, or freeze—parents do, too! I know that I am a fighter, so I need visual cues to help me remember not to engage, but rather to take a deep breath and walk away when tempers are flaring.
- Breathing exercises. I am a big fan of meditation, and I find that practicing regular deep breathing and mindfulness helps me be more prepared for emotional outbursts. When I meditate, I think through my game plan for the inevitable conflicts that arise, and am able to anticipate and respond to them more constructively.
- Reflective listening. There is absolutely no reasoning with a child who is in fight, flight, or freeze mode, but children whose panic responses are flaring need to know they are seen, heard, and understood. Reflective listening can be a great tool for helping to calm a really upset child (or adult!)
- Planned (Present) Ignoring. If a child is raging for secondary gain, such as to get your attention or to feel a sense of power by making you upset, the parenting tool planned ignoring is very effective. However, for the foster parent, we must take into account abandonment issues our kids might struggle with. This is why I call it “Planned Present Ignoring.” In this case, you aim to ignore a problematic behavior while maintaining proximity to the child. Demonstrating a flat or calm affect, you do not respond to the behavior, but you aim to silently and passively remain connected to the child. If you must walk away or create space between yourself and the child in order to ignore a behavior, do not stay apart for very long. I might say to an enraged, violent child, “I’ll be in the laundry room folding clothes. When you’re finished and ready to be calm, come find me so we can talk.” This works every time! It helps a child know you see and hear them, while communicating that their behavior is not going to get them what they want.
- Headphones and Mp3 player for both of you! I have purchased Mp3 players for each of the children in our home—even our four-year-old. I load them with Disney songs and worship songs and audio recordings of stories, and when someone needs to calm down or be distracted or just have something to do in the car besides fight with his siblings, they can listen to their Mp3 players. I also find that wearing headphones with a podcast or music is helpful to me when a child is screaming at me and not responding to my efforts to help them calm down.
We have to take a long view of helping our children develop their skills for managing their big emotions. While none of these things will completely fix the fact that our kids deal with things that make emotional outbursts fairly common, we can work to help them learn better ways to handle themselves.