Foster children enter the system when there’s been a traumatic situation in their family, such as abuse, neglect, domestic violence, homelessness, or exposure to criminal activity, drugs, or alcohol. As a result, a high percentage of these children suffer from a variety of physical, cognitive, academic, and social-emotional challenges. Except for infants, the younger the child is when he or she is removed from his home, the higher the likelihood that he or she will face these challenges. Young children are especially vulnerable to disruptions to their safety and security. However, if a child is treated for developmental issues early on, it’s more possible for the child to develop healthy patterns and to reach his or her full potential.
Mental Health Disorders
The mental health of a foster child can be compromised due to a variety of factors—both biological and environmental. For example, a child may have mental illness due to biological factors, such as genetics, damage to the central nervous system, or chemical imbalances. Environmental effects on mental health stem from factors such as prenatal drug abuse, abuse, extreme stress, the loss of an important person, or exposure to violence.
Some of the most common ways that mental health disorders manifest are as major depression, anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, schizophrenia, obsessive compulsive disorder, autism, post traumatic stress disorder, or reactive attachment disorder. Some studies indicate that up to 80 percent of children in foster care suffer from significant mental health problems. Unfortunately, only a small percentage of these children (around 23 percent in one study) actually get treated for mental health issues.
Many foster children struggle in school. This can be related to a mental health disorder or to the trauma of being moved from home to home and school to school. A child who is in the foster care system for less than two years goes through three placements on the average. Experts estimate that around 30 to 40 percent of foster children are in special education classes. Other developmental problems could include speech impediments, such as stuttering, or slowed language or motor skills.
Most of the time, foster children have not had healthy relationships modeled for them. They may have needed to fend for themselves or for siblings and may have developed survivalist tendencies. This often exhibits as food hoarding.
Social-emotional skills involve the ability to interact with adults and other children and the ability to process emotions in a healthy way. If a foster parent notices any behaviors or symptoms that indicate emotional disturbances or underdeveloped social skills, it’s important to seek help for the child as soon as possible. Some indicators could be social anxiety or withdrawal, social aggression, relational problems with peers, inattention to other people’s feelings and possessions, and the like.
Early diagnosis and treatment of developmental disorders in children can make a big difference. Even better, the safety and security of a loving home has helped many foster children heal. As a foster parent, you can truly make a difference.