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How Can Foster Care Affect the Mind of a Child?

Caring for foster children can be a way to help kids without a home or to build your own family. But your foster child's behavior might often baffle you. Foster care -- even good foster care -- can have profound effects on a child. Every move your foster child has had to endure, even if the previous home was abusive or neglectful, takes a toll on his security. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 30 percent of foster children have severe emotional or behavioral issues that make family life challenging.

Attachment Issues

Foster children often have attachment issues related to poor parenting during the first few years. Attachment issues can cause physical problems, such as failure to thrive, as well as emotional disorders like depression, failure to form attachments to caregivers, or mental-health disturbances. The more times a child is moved, the less likely he is to form secure attachments. Between 33 and 66 percent of foster-care arrangements are disrupted during the first two years, reports developmental psychologist Brenda Jones Harden in "Safety and Stability for Foster Children," an article published in the Winter 2004 issue of the journal The Future of Children. Kids with attachment issues might be distrustful and suspicious, unable to follow rules, or appear to have no sense of guilt over their behavior. Some attach too easily to any adult indiscriminately, but on a superficial level.

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Mental-Health Issues

Children in foster care have a higher incidence of mental disturbances than kids not in foster care, Harden writes. Depression, poor social skills and negative behaviors like anger and aggression all occur more commonly in children who have spent time in the foster-care system. As with many issues related to foster children, it's difficult to sort out whether a child's problems are related to genetic factors or early environment rather than to the foster-care system. Foster children use a larger proportion of mental-health resources than children not in foster care, but they also have better access to that care.

Developmental Delays

Foster children often have developmental delays. Early neglect, alcohol or drug use during pregnancy, or premature birth can all cause developmental delays, including delay in talking or achieving physical milestones such as crawling or walking. Sometimes foster children also have a higher rate of growth abnormalities and a larger number of health problems than children not in foster care, but they might not differ from children who remained with impoverished biological families, according to a National Survey of Child and Adolescent Well-Being study cited by Harden. Foster children are also more likely to function at a lower level in school, repeat grades more often and earn poorer grades, but this too is more likely associated with early influences on health and development than with foster care itself.

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Behaviors After Contact with Birth Parents

Visits with biological family members often turn foster households upside down, both before and after. Many kids have anxiety and difficulty sleeping before meetings. They might also express unrealistic ideas about what the visit will be like, especially if they haven't seen the parent recently. Acting out after visits is common; crying, anger, sadness, and withdrawal are all typical behaviors. You might think this means that the child would be better off without the visits, but this isn't the case. As difficult as these behaviors are, it's still important to keep up the contact with bio parents, unless there's evidence that the visits are actually harmful. As many as 66 percent of foster children end up returning to the birth family within two years, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychology.

Suzanne Robin is a registered nurse with more than 25 years of experience in oncology, labor/delivery, neonatal intensive care, infertility and ophthalmology. She also has extensive experience working in home health with developmentally delayed or medically fragile children. Robin received her RN degree from Western Oklahoma State College. She has coauthored and edited numerous books for the Wiley "Dummies" series.

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