4 Tips To Help Foster and Adoptive Children with Boundaries

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When a child is born, caregivers determine where the child will go. The child’s domain usually consists of a crib, the arms of caregivers and loved ones, or a place they are buckled into such as a bouncy seat, carseat, or stroller. As the child grows and starts to become mobile, their caregivers allow them increasing areas to explore. These areas usually start with a playpen and gradually increase to a gated room, a floor of the home, the backyard, the street, and eventually the neighborhood. Once teens get their driver’s license, their reach extends as they practice being young adults.

The perimeters, or boundaries, we set for our children keep them safe. The boundaries should reflect the development of the child and their ability to be safe in the area in which we allow them to roam, whether physical, behavioral, or virtual. All children test the boundaries set for them, and sometimes they show through their behavior that they are not quite ready for the increased limits we set. So what happens when children show that they cannot be safe outside the playpen? Well, most parents put the child back in the playpen. And what is usually the child’s response to having their freedom restricted again? It is usually a very angry scream!

Sometimes, however, the child shows or expresses relief at the safety provided by the limits placed on them. Maybe the skinned knee hurt, and the child is glad for the training wheels being put back on the big kid bike because the child realizes more practice is needed with the help of the training wheels. We have had one child who was often so grateful to be metaphorically put back in the playpen, having old boundaries reimposed. As parents, the gratefulness at first was so surprising, but this child had enough self-awareness to know that the limits were needed because the child’s impulsivity or the temptation to push through the limits was just too much for the child.

So much of the child’s response depends on our approach. If we react to their behavior solely with anger and punishment, the child often does not learn anything from the situation, and our relationship suffers. So what can we do to help the child not rebel and scream at being put back in the playpen? On the child’s level of understanding:

  1. Acknowledge feelings – Acknowledge the child’s feelings. What feelings was the child having before, during, and after crossing a boundary? Help the child understand what they may be feeling, whether it is anger, frustration, fear, or so on.
  2. Express nurturing concern – Talk about your own feelings and fears resulting from the boundary the child crossed. Discuss with the child things that could happen as a result of crossing the particular boundary. It is important to let the child think through potential consequences and come to their own conclusions as much as possible.
  3. Express teamwork – Rather than just imposing boundaries on the child, expressing an attitude of teamwork and coming alongside the child to help them manage and control their actions has a huge impact on their reactions to boundaries.
  4. Express the child’s value – Leigh Anne Goldstine of the Built 2 Bond Attachment Institute in Knoxville, Tennessee, has taught us that one idea children in foster care or who have been adopted often struggle with is that making a mistake does not mean that they are a failure or that they are unlovable. This often results in either internalizing the mistake and feeling they personally are a failure who cannot do anything right, or they refuse to accept responsibility so that they can believe they are still lovable.

These steps are not in any particular order. You may need to do one before the others dependent on the situation. It is also super important to remember that if the child is in a state of “fight, flight, or freeze” or is in some way out of control, they are mentally unable to think because the child’s brain is physically unable to access rational thought, logic, or reason.

I will admit that I often respond to a child breaking boundaries with a knee-jerk attitude of anger and punishment. It never makes the child or me feel good about the situation, and it does not aid in our attachment. But when I have employed the strategies above, the results have always been increased attachment between the child and myself and growth for the child. Recently, one of our kids had a big behavioral regression and had to be “put back in the playpen” in one area. Limits had to be put back in place because the behavior showed the child could not handle the increased limits. I started to respond with anger and punishment, but I stepped back a moment and went back to the child. I used the approach above, and what resulted was an extended time holding this precious young person, discussing how to prevent the boundaries from being broken, making the child feel valued, and connecting over discussing what happened. At one point, the child broke down and cried and apologized for causing stress for us. I cupped the child’s chin in my hand, met the child’s eyes, and said that it was an honor and a privilege to be the child’s mom. The thanks and happy tears and connection that followed was a huge win, and we were able to move forward as a team to work towards healing and growth. I could have missed that moment!


Here are some great books to help children learn some important concepts related to behavioral boundaries, mistakes, and feelings:

  1. Books to Help Children Understand They Are Loveable and Valuable Even When They Make Mistakes:
    The Mermaid Who Couldn’t
    by Ali Redford [Our Review]
    What Do You Do with a Problem? by Kobi Yamada [Our Review]
    I Love You Through and Through by Bernadette Rosetti-Shustak [Our Review]
  2. Books to Help Kids See Adults Mess Up Too:
    Ellie Jelly and the Massive Mum Meltdown by Sarah Naish [Our Review]

Share with others:

What resources have you used to help your child with these concepts?
What other tips do you have for helping children with boundaries?


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8 Suggestions for Successfully Clothing a Foster or Adoptive Child

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Parents want their children, especially foster and adoptive children—who can tend be targets of stereotypes, bullying, and judgement—to look well taken care of and to feel good about what they are wearing. This can prove a major undertaking for most families, but it can prove especially challenging for foster and adoptive families. Let’s take a look at the added obstacles that impede keeping foster or adoptive children looking like they are provided for.


Barriers Foster and Adoptive Parents Face When Clothing Their Kids and Resources to Overcome Them

  1. Sensory Issues
    Often children who have been through childhood trauma also have special needs like sensory processing disorder or autism which may affect what clothing a child can tolerate wearing. In our home, we have experienced several different issues related to clothing a child will or will not wear. We had one child who developed a sudden aversion to the feeling of jeans. This was of course right after Christmas when we had purchased several new pairs of jeans. The child would scream at the mention of jeans and demand “soft pants.” We suddenly needed clothing that did not feel like torture to the child’s senses. Realize that these children physically sense touch differently and work with them to accommodate their needs and make them comfortable. You will gain their trust, and over time, some issues may be remedied. See #8 for more on how to financially withstand this!
  2. Sentimental Items
    Oftentimes children in foster care or who were adopted have experienced a lot of loss, so it is easy to understand how they may become especially attached to items that were given to them by someone special or items that have some special meaning to them. These items may smell horrible or have holes or stains, but the child may hang on to these clothes as if their very life depended on it and refuse to even let them be washed.Tread lightly here. Do not create more loss. You may just have to allow the child to use the item the way it is, but you may be able to work together with the child to try to find solutions. You can wash or repair the items together. You can find another way the child can feel close to the person while saving the item in a special place.
  3. Control Battles
    Children whose lives seem out of control to them seek any kind of control they can, whether it’s how or where they eat or use the bathroom or what they wear. Clothing is an area where they may really dig their feet in and stand their ground leading to some major control battles. Choose your battles wisely! Foster and adoptive children face so many struggles, and what they wear is often at the bottom of the list of priorities.
  4. Differences in Cultural Norms
    How your family dresses and how your child’s first family dresses may vary widely. What is unacceptable at your house may have been perfectly acceptable at theirs. There can often be so many issues being tackled at once that this is just one more area where a child can feel grief and loss or a feeling like they cannot do anything right. This is a good time to work on compromises. You can show the child a variety of clothing items that will fit the intended purpose and allow them to pick from them. You can alter an outfit to make it acceptable (i.e., a shirt or leggings worn underneath revealing clothes). OR, you may just need to deal with letting them bend your rules a bit when there are more important issues at hand!
  5. Self-esteem Issues
    Often children who have endured trauma experience low self-esteem and low self-worth. They often view themselves as unworthy, and this includes feeling unworthy of nice clothes. They may not wear them because they feel unworthy. They may destroy or hide them. Helping the child gain confidence and self-worth is a whole other but vital area to work on. Repeated mantras that teach them they deserve to be cared for, that they are a valuable member of the family, and that they are provided for will help over time.
  6. Stolen or Unreturned Items
    You may find items disappearing. This can be particularly problematic if a child visits other family members who send them back in old clothes and sell or keep the clothes you sent them in. Foster parents often dress kiddos up nicely to visit their birth parents and get angry when they are returned in tattered or too small/big (or both) clothes.If you find this to be a problem, have a stash of clothes that you do not care so much about. You may send a child on visitation with clothes the family sent them back to your home in, and you may need to enlist the help of someone supervising the visits.
  7. Destroyed Items
    Children who have come from trauma may struggle behaviorally with rages and meltdowns. We have had many a cut or torn piece of clothing during moments when a child was unable to regulate their emotions and became destructive as a result. Teaching coping mechanisms takes time. Be willing to learn new skills in helping children learn to regulate their emotions and how to de-escalate situations. Redirection of behavior towards objects that are less valuable can ease some of the destruction. Some parents have found it necessary to remove extra clothes from a child’s room and place them elsewhere to protect the child (It’s amazing how dangerous clothing items can be to a child with self-harm behaviors.) and the clothes during fits of rage.
  8. Cost
    All kids grow and need new clothes, but foster and adoptive parents especially may face huge challenges when it comes to keeping their kids clothed because of all the aforementioned reasons and also because they often receive children into their home with little to no belongings. It is very costly just to provide all the basic clothing items needed for a child. Sometimes foster children who are just entering the foster care system receive a one-time clothing allotment from the state to purchase some basics, and some states or agencies provide a clothing allowance, but it often does not even come close to meeting the financial needs of everything from shoes, underclothing, belts, pants, shirts, coats, and so on. (See the HITTING THE M.A.R.C. – Establishing Foster Care Minimum Adequate Rates for Children study for a look at how foster care subsidies do not adequately meet the basic needs of a child let alone “keep up with the Joneses.”) Children who enter foster care or adoption often have experienced a lack of well-fitting and maintained clothing items. It can mean the world to them to go pick out a new outfit of their choice, and I highly suggest doing this! However, I know that it’s often not feasible to get everything new, though I do teach my kids how to find new clothes on the clearance racks for thrift store prices! This is where networking with other foster and adoptive parents in your area can become invaluable. Many locations have clothing and supply closets for foster families to utilize when they receive a new placement. Transfiguring Adoption has been compiling lists of places around the country that provide this type of service. See our Supplies, Services and Wishes Page (on our resources tab) for this list and more! Find a community of support from families like yours and trade supplies if a clothing closet is not available. Social media groups are a great place for requesting needed items and offering those your family no longer needs. 

Now It’s Your Turn:

  1. What barriers have you faced?
  2. How have you overcome these barriers?

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When Self-Care Means Sacrifice and Not Merely Survival

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At Transfiguring Adoption, we always say we strive to be the oxygen mask for caregivers, but I openly admit that I fail to put mine on all the time. And everyone suffers! As an introvert, I can usually recover when I get a chance at some quiet, but what happens when the quiet doesn’t come for too long?


Survival Mode Doesn’t Truly Equal Survival

When we received temporary placement of two kiddos at the beginning of the summer, we went in to “survival mode,” a just-make-it-through-the-summer-until-they-find-a-placement type of daily existence. We did well and employed some of our best trauma-based care techniques, and all the kids, adopted and foster alike, were growing and doing well.

But were we?

We went out for a couple hours one night over the summer and came back to some major issues and didn’t get any more time alone or alone together. We became so exhausted that all our fave parenting techniques started flying out the window. School started, but so did IEP and support team meetings, parent teacher conferences, emergency calls for sick, misbehaving, or wet kids, and fall began another convention season, meaning any respite we took was used for work purposes. And our temporary placements were still here.

We found ourselves sinking in survival mode, not truly even surviving anymore. We determined that we needed to begin building in some supports so that we could continue to provide a home for our foster children and be physically, mentally, and emotionally present for all our kids. We decided we definitely needed to have afterschool care so that we could continue to work and get things done beyond 2:45 each day, so we put the elementary kids in afterschool care at school, and we hired someone to come into our house to help the teens with homework and other tasks around the house. Was this really in the budget? Well, no, not really, but the sacrifice meant a bit more sanity for us all and ultimately our survival as a family for the time being.

This didn’t fully solve the problem. We may have been getting more done and feeling better about that, but working isn’t really self-care. After a few more months, we were no longer therapeutic parents. I’m not even sure I’d say we were decent foster/adoptive parents. A week or so before our placements left, one looked at me and said, “You guys have changed,” and she was right. We were so burnt out, so exhausted, that we had much lower thresholds for what we could handle patiently and therapeutically. We couldn’t even tap out for each other anymore.

Looking back, I would have started building more supports in over the summer. I would have sacrificed any penny possible to be sure we got time to ourselves to be us and refuel and refresh because the reality is, when we fail to put on our oxygen masks, we stop being what our kids need. Neither they nor we are truly surviving. We sink when we stay in survival mode for too long.


Now It’s Your Turn:

  1. What supports have you built in to ensure you can continue to be what your kids need you to be?
  2. How do you know when you need a break?

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