So you’re a foster parent…or becoming a foster parent…NOW WHAT!
Connecting with a foster or adoptive child is more challenging then you might have initially expected.
Especially if you have biological children. You might have expected it to come pretty easily.
In this article, we take a look at Reactive Attachment Disorder and other challenges in connecting with a foster child.
In This Article
About the Authors
This article is based on scientific evidence and clinical experience, written by licensed professionals and fact-checked by experts.
Why Can’t I Connect With My Foster Child?
After pouring your heart and soul into your foster child, you are confused as to why they do not receive it with open arms, gobbling up all that you have to give. You experience the pain of rejection as they toss everything you have offered them back into your face, seasoned with anger. The experience of the disconnection resonates with both parties, and it is difficult not to take the child’s perceived rejection personally.
Attachment: What is it?
We’ve all seen them, cute, chubby cheeks that are attached to little bodies that we call newborns. They are adorable. In order for an infant to develop socially and emotionally, a secure relationship with a caregiver needs to take place. Often times in the case of a child who has been placed in foster care, these secure relationships do not happen. From approximate ages six months to two years, the caregiver role is vital. Caregivers who are sensitive and responsive to social interactions with the child, like when the child needs food, comfort or care, secure attachment is formed. Engaging with the child through these events offers an opportunity for bonding. Through these attachments children grow, individuate, and become functional adults.
Attachment: Why is it so important?
Attachment plays a vital role in an individual’s life. Attachment produces a sense of belonging, especially within a family unit. A child who is securely attached to parental figures will have a sense that they are valuable and worthwhile. For a child who does not have a secure base, they will often take to wandering in their early teen years, looking for a place to belong.
In the life of a foster child, attachment is often lacking. You, as a foster parent, can have an impact on that. Kiddos in foster care report that just knowing that they were cared about assisted in feeling more comfortable.
A Caregiver’s Influence
Parents’ relationship with their child influences development. Infants use caregivers as a secure base to go from and return to when exploring the world.
Caregivers response will shape a child’s perceptions, emotions, thoughts, and expectations later in life. Social support minimizes stress – for all parties involved.
Role of Caregiver: What Happens if it’s Not There?
When a child does not experience these early bonding relationships, it often shows up in late childhood, early teen years. In the case of foster care or adoption, it can seem like a sudden shift in relationship. The effort and energy the new caretaker has invested suddenly seems unnoticed. Children in foster care are there because of a trauma. The trauma could include sexual abuse, verbal abuse, neglect, abandonment, and physical abuse. When a child experiences a trauma or repeated trauma, their EQ, or emotional intelligence quotient, gets stunted at that age. For example, a child who experiences neglect beginning at age three will present themselves emotionally as a three-year-old even though they are much older. This is important to realize because it speaks to the need that the child has.
What is RAD?
The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry defines several of these symptoms as Reactive Attachment Disorder, or RAD. They suggest that most children experiencing RAD have had a disruption in the early relationships which often include physical or emotional abuse and neglect. Those who have had “multiple or traumatic losses in their primary caregiver” are also subject to RAD, including those who are in foster care.
Reactive Attachment Disorder, or RAD, is a fairly new term within the field of psychology and is defined as serious problems in emotional attachments to others (AACAP). This shows up with children not responding to developmentally appropriate social interactions – with individuals both inside and outside the family unit. This can be confusing to the caregiver as it shows up as ‘mixed’, meaning that the child could be responsive to you and the ‘switch gears’ and be unresponsive to your care. Perhaps the child is resistant to your comfort, avoiding you, or watchful of you.
This also shows up in being indiscriminate in regards as to who the child attaches to. For example, a child may seem to bond quickly with a school teacher or Sunday school teacher, a coach, or a friend’s mom, regardless of the adults’ investment in the child.
- Participate in activities: What activities does the child like to do? Participate with them. Get them involved.
- Safe touch: Touch can be a powerful tool, especially when done safely.
- Teaching: What are life skills that you could teach the child?
- Reinforce and remind the child of your love. With both word and action, remind the child of your love for them.
- Set up expectations/family rules. While it can seem contradictory, having guidelines and family rules offers boundaries in which the child can rely on.
- Keep on keeping on: The child needs consistent love from a stable and secure source.
- Involve the child in therapy, but be a part. Often times a child is sent to therapy and made to feel as though they were the problem. As a caregiver, being a part of their therapy can be healing and momentum building in the bonding process.
- Learn to listen: Build the skill of hearing the child’s heart. Refrain from reminding the child all that you have done for them. This can be damaging to the relationship.
If you are currently a foster parent, or know someone who is, and is struggling to build the connection with your kiddos, we’re here to help. Please know there is help available. This is not a journey that needs to be taken alone.
- Dozier, M., Stoval, K. C., Albus, K. E., & Bates, B. (2001). Attachment for infants in foster care: The role of caregiver state of mind. Child development, 72(5), 1467-1477. 
- Dozier, M., Peloso, E., Lewis, E., Laurenceau, J. P., & Levine, S. (2008). Effects of an attachment-based intervention on the cortisol production of infants and toddlers in foster care. Development and psychopathology, 20(3), 845-859. 
- Smyke, A. T., Zeanah, C. H., Gleason, M. M., Drury, S. S., Fox, N. A., Nelson, C. A., & Guthrie, D. (2012). A randomized controlled trial comparing foster care and institutional care for children with signs of reactive attachment disorder. American Journal of Psychiatry, 169(5), 508-514. 
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