All children need role models, but for children from abusive home, good role models may be even more important. Foster children need caring adults to give them direction and to act in ways that make them feel safe. They need the adults in their lives to demonstrate that people can e trusted not to hurt them. And they need adults to be “coaches” who show them how to manage their feelings and behaviors.
That’s why it’s critically important to understand that children learn from everything they see and hear, and from everyone they meet. What you say and what you do will be observed and imitated y the children who live with you. If you act calm during a crisis, children will be more likely to act the same way when they face a crisis of their own. On the other hand, if you get angry quickly and deal with your emotions by yelling, your foster children will probably act the same way when they get angry.
How you can be a good role model:
- Show your foster child that you can control your own anger, and teach her how to do the same. With the child, practice something you can do instead of yelling or getting angrier, like counting, counting backwards, imagining a peaceful place, or blowing pretend bubbles. Blowing pretend bubbles is a good thing to start with because it’s easy and encourages a child to take long, slow breaths that will help her calm down. Begin by blowing real bubbles, then have the child blow pretend bubbles. Encourage her to do something like this as soon as she starts to feel angry or upset—and don’t forget to do the same thing yourself.
- Be calm and caring. If your foster child has done something that’s upsetting—like leaving the kitchen messy—take a deep breath and respond calmly. Say something like, “Looks like you enjoyed your snack… now let’s get moving on cleaning up.” Yelling something like, “Look what you did to my kitchen… you can’t ever use iit again!” teaches the child to respond to stressful situations with emotional outbursts rather than taking a step backwards and trying to stay calm.
- Be patient. Many traumatized children learn negative behaviors as a way of dealing with bad situations in their birth homes. Some children, for example, learn to lie to avoid physical punishment. Show patience as your foster child “unlearns” bad behaviors. Don’t use sarcasm or criticism as the child struggles to learn new ways to behave. And recognize that teaching may have to be repeated many, many times before a child is able to let go of old, negative responses.
- Practice what you preach. Your actions have far more influence on a child than your words. If you smoke, eat a poor diet, keep a messy home, or spend hours on the computer or in front of the TV, children will learn to do the same. Always do yourself what you expect your foster child to do. If you want her to clean her room, make sure you keep your home clean. If you want her to eat properly, make sure you eat a balanced diet yourself, including breakfast in the morning. And if you want her to do her homework, make sure you’ve completed all your own tasks before enjoying a little “down-time” by watching TV or using the computer.
- Be respectful. Be a day-to-day example of your own value system. Show the compassion, honesty, generosity, and kindness you want your foster child to have. And remember that you can’t demand respect by yelling or intimidation. You can only earn respect by behaving respectfully yourself.
- Be a good listener. Try to spend at least 15 minutes a day listening and talking to your foster child without outside interruptions. One of the best ways to get your foster child to talk to you is to involve her in something—like helping with dinner or baking cookies together. While you’re both busy, ask your foster child how her day was. Remember not to boss, preach, judge, or criticize. Just listen and offer encouragement as needed.
- Be fair, firm, and consistent. Foster children want to know they’ll be treated fairly, with the same respect as everyone else in your household. Set clear rules that must be followed by everyone in the house, including “grown ups’ rules” that apply to you. Discuss consequences in advance, and when a rule is broken, respond with an immediate consequence. Make sure the consequences are focused on teaching rather than punishment. Never use physical force or violence as punishment. Also make sure that your foster child has the opportunity to earn the same privileges as any other child in your home.
- Demonstrate cultural sensitivity. Be supportive of and show an interest in your foster child’s cultural background, religion, and customs. It’s a way for you to model respectful behavior, and it helps the child feel pride in her own heritage.