Handling Behaviors

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A former foster youth with a degree in social work shares tips on how to handle challenging behaviors from youth in your care

By Katarina Kabick, MSW

Foster youth are often punished for normal developmental behaviors. This punishment ranges from displacement and detachment to institutionalization and incarceration. Punishment has little to do with foster youth behavior and more to do with the inability of adults to effectively respond to this behavior.

When a toddler’s preschool teacher calls home about behavior that includes biting, the parents pick them up, teach them to use their words, and kiss them goodnight. When this baby is in foster care, they get labeled as aggressive, and “a seven-day notice” from the caregiver means they have to move.

When a third grader has so much energy that it is hard to focus in school, their parents sign them up for soccer. When this child is in foster care, they are quickly assessed for and diagnosed with a series of “mental disorders,” that comes with a prescription of psychotropic medication. But nothing is done to address the child’s underlying trauma.

When a teenager gets in an argument with their parents, even when they raise their voice or slam a door, they still have a home. When this young person is in foster care, it is not uncommon for the police to be called.

“While not always intended to punish children in care, typical system crisis response such as seven-day notices, abrupt moves, placement in restrictive facilities, forced mental health treatment almost always feel to children like an extreme and hurtful punishment,” said Jennifer Rodriguez, executive director of the Youth Law Center. “And [they] have huge impacts on children’s understanding of the world and their trajectory in life.”

Without the grace parents afford to their biological children, risk-taking and mistakes bear very different consequences for children in the foster care system.

Shay House, 23, spent 19 years of her life in the foster care system in Alameda County, Calif., and experienced at least 53 placement changes. She points out misplaced blame in the child welfare system.

“It is a problem to punish foster youth because we didn’t enter the system through any fault of our own,” House said.

Even when a young person is exhibiting a concerning behavior, that young person and their behavior aren’t the problem. Children enter foster care as a result of adults being unable to meet the needs of that child or youth, and most often because of the unequal distribution of resources that leaves certain neighborhoods behind.

The problem in this scenario is that the adults who step in to “save the day” — the state-sanctioned caregiver, the caseworkers, the therapists — do not know how to appropriately respond to the behavior caused by the traumas that led the youth into the system in the first place.

When House was in care, punishment was part of everyday life.

“When I was living in a group home, I was prescribed this medication. When I refused to take it, I was punished and couldn’t even go outside because I was told that ‘going outside is a privilege,’” she said. “So I was forced to take these medications, but they made me tired and I fell asleep in class. And then I got in trouble for falling asleep in class, so I actually lost more privileges.”

House is not referencing the definition of “privilege” that may have crossed your mind. “Privileges” in the context of group homes can include hygiene products, rides to school, snacks, TV time and phone calls.

“The bare necessities aren’t a privilege but we’re conditioned to believe that they are,” House said.

According to Rodriguez, punishment isn’t even the best way to encourage a behavioral change.

“Science is actually really clear for children of all ages: babies to adolescents. The most effective way we can intervene to change children’s behavior is by changing the behavior of the adults around them,” she said.

Here are some tips on how foster parents can respond to the sometimes frustrating and confusing behavior exhibited by foster youth in ways that are more constructive:

  1. Just talk about it. I have heard well-meaning foster parents put in a seven-day notice without ever having a conversation with the kids when that communication could have changed everything. Be honest. Get vulnerable. Foster youth are expected to share so much and that’s often not reciprocated. Be different.
  2. Remember foster youth are still kids, too. Don’t forget what it was like when you were their age. Be understanding. Immerse yourself in training about grief, loss, trauma and healing. Many behaviors are developmentally typical or learned survival strategies for when these young people have been really unsafe in the past. Take a deep breath. Ask questions. Reach out for support.
  3. Don’t go it alone. If it takes a village to raise a child and foster parents are isolated from their village what happens to foster youth? Extended families, neighborhoods and other communities should be actively involved. Don’t know what to do about something that happened at home? Call Grandma. After all, if it’s what you would do for your biological children you’re probably on the right track.

“When children have parents to help them navigate these experiences with love and understanding, risk-taking can result in growth and development, mistakes can be used as teachable moments, and failures can be recovered from and used to build resilience,” Rodriguez said.

Don’t forget what it was like when you were a teenager. Maybe you have even raised teenagers before. The risk-taking, experimentation and attitude can be frustrating. Reach out to friends and extended family in these times. Teenagers need more support, not less. It’s crucial to the development of young people in care to understand they are never the problem and to have supportive, understanding guidance to help them learn to make safer and healthier choices. •

Katarina Kabick recently graduated with a master’s degree in social work from the University of California, Berkeley. She is an active member of the California Youth Connection’s Alameda County Chapter and its statewide policy team. She recently co-founded Y-LIFE (Young Leaders Igniting the Fight for Equity), which works to bring youth voice to providers, organizations and systems across the Bay Area.

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