Foster children’s emotional needs: SCIE reviews the research

Looked-after children have more emotional and mental health needs, as well as more behavioural difficulties than most children. Their difficulties usually start before they enter care. Scie’s practice guide 3 on fostering addresses the issues that face children in foster care and includes information on meeting their emotional and behavioural needs.

Fostered children often have difficult early lives. Their educational performance can be poor, their childhoods in and out of foster care are often unstable. These difficulties can affect children’s behaviour in placement and cause many problems for the child, foster carer, social worker and later on, society. The problems can continue into adulthood and have a negative effect on the person’s education and work, personal and social life.

Research has shown that foster care that offers stability, security and a good relationship can help young people to develop and mature emotionally. However, foster parent-child relationships need time to develop on both sides and a child’s capacity to develop a close relationship will be influenced by their early experience of attachment.

Research into attachment has shown that a child needs to develop an attachment relationship with an adult in order to feel secure. Small children cannot protect or look after themselves, so attachment relationships have a primary objective of ensuring the child’s survival. In “usual” development this happens over the child’s first six or seven months as the child develops a close relationship with one adult, usually their birth mother, but sometimes with their father or other family member. Where attachment does not follow this pattern, children may have very unpredictable and sometimes self-defeating strategies for getting help and support. Their early experiences may also mean that they are very resistant to change, irrespective of the skill, effort and commitment of those who care for them after they leave their birth families. There is considerable research on children who have experienced trauma, including disrupted attachments, in early life, demonstrating that the lack of a close attachment also has an impact on a child’s neurological development.

Children who return home after long periods in care are more likely to show disruptive and offending behaviour than those who remain in care. The disruption of their relationship with the foster carer may be a contributory factor. When a child does return home, support from social services can be patchy, although it is usually needed. A quarter of the children in one study had no contact with a social worker following their return. Those who did said support generally focused on practical issues and “tailed off” quite quickly.

Fostered children from ethnic minorities have particular emotional and behavioural needs in addition to those of other children. They need to be in an environment where they can develop an understanding of their own culture and may need support to enable them to deal with racism and discrimination. Ethnic minority carers are often well placed to empathise with birthparents’ difficulties and help foster children have a sense of pride and achievement.

Children are also able to make better sense of their history if they have contact with their families and other black people. Children need extra help to make sense of their identity and history if they are placed with white carers. Contact with both parents is particularly important for children of mixed race parentage who often feel they have lost out on one aspect of their background.

An increasing number of asylum-seeking children from Africa and central Europe are beginning to have an impact on the profile of looked-after children. Many of these children may have been traumatised and living in very stressful circumstances, which means they often need more specialist care.

Further information

Practice guide 3: Fostering

Resource guide 4: Promoting resilience in fostered children and young people

British Association for Adoption and Fostering

A National Voice

● Thoburn J, Chand A and Procter J (in press), Child Welfare Services for Minority Ethnic Families: The Research Reviewed, London: Jessica Kingsley.

This article appeared in the 10 January issue under the headline “Foster children’s emotional needs”


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