Common Behavioral Problems of Children Placed in Foster Care

By Taylor DiVico

Updated September 26, 2017

Boy pouting

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Regardless of your diligence and good intentions as an educator, case worker or caregiver, behavioral problems in foster children can arise at anytime. Foster children suffer from social, emotional and physical distress because of traumatic experiences, chaos and stress in life. Understanding the emotions behind common behavior problems of children placed in foster care and knowing the symptoms can help you provide appropriate treatment and discipline in a stable and nurturing environment.

Disruptive Disorder Behavior

Foster children could have been exposed to many negative influences at the hand of an adult, including violence in the home, physical, mental and emotional abuse, parental drug use, neglect and transience through the foster-care system. Such traumatic experiences can lead to a lack of trust and feelings of fear and abandonment, which manifests as anger and aggression toward authority figures. Teachers, social workers and foster parents who interact with foster children might witness aggressive behavior and general defiance demonstrated by disrespectful language, disregard for rules, arguing, mimicking, eye-rolling, ignoring, talking back, property damage, drug use, lying and temper tantrums.

Anti-Social Behavior/Bullying

Foster children can respond to the trauma in their lives by becoming anti-social because of a chaotic past, lack of control in life and uncertainty in the future. Low self-esteem and feelings of shame or guilt are common traits of a foster child, which can lead to depression, anxiety and self-hatred. Such emotions can cause the desire in a foster child to trigger negative feelings in peers by bullying them. Common bullying behaviors include name-calling and ridiculing, verbal or physical intimidation, stealing or destroying other kids' property, teasing, pushing, tripping, fighting and placing blame for his or her own actions on others. These behaviors lead to social isolation, strained peer relationships, negative attention and problems at school or in the foster home.

Reactive Attachment Disorder Behaviors

Children in foster care commonly experienced a lack of nurturing, caring and comfort as a result of being abused, orphaned and shuffled through the foster-care system. These issues enable them from forming healthful bonds and appropriate attachments with others including peers, educators and caregivers. Reactive attachment disorder behaviors are categorized as disinhibited and inhibited behaviors 5. Disinhibited behaviors are demonstrated by the constant seeking of attention from anyone, including strangers, and appear as separation anxiety, repeated requests for assistance and task completion, chronic lying, crying or whining, eating disorders and promiscuity. Foster children exhibiting inhibited behaviors are typically withdrawn, shy away from assistance, exhibit a lack of interest in studies, play or relationships, avoid physical contact and tend to like being left alone.

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder Behaviors

Foster-care children who have experienced repeated trauma such as violence and abuse react to stress with a number of problematic behaviors occurring out of confusion, fear, aggression and sadness. Children might daydream, have repeated nightmares, emotional outbursts or become hyper-alert as a result of reliving bad memories or fearing repeated trauma. Other behaviors in response to stress include difficulty concentrating, impulsiveness, hyperactivity, mood swings and irritability. Foster children might revert to helpless or soothing behaviors such as clinging onto a caregiver, thumb-sucking, rocking back and forth and bed-wetting to cope with stress.