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FEAR, the “fuel” for our children’s negative behaviors: Help for parents . . .

Updated: Apr 10

Jonathan is 10 years old. He’s been in foster care since he was eight. Those first eight years were marked by extreme abuse and neglect. There was never enough food. His home was lice-and rodent-infested. His parents were involved in manufacturing, selling and using methamphetamine. Jonathan was often left to fend for himself and his two younger brothers. When his parents were at home, Jonathan was often the primary target for their physical abuse.


Jonathan is currently the only child in a foster home with a husband and wife couple. “Everything and every day is a battle” they say. Even the smallest requests like brushing his teeth, taking a shower and combing his hair are met with resistance. Jonathan also hordes food in his room. At mealtimes, his parents observe that, “He eats like it’s his last meal!” His tantrums can last for an hour or more, sometimes including breaking things in his room or lashing out at his foster parents. “Jonathan thinks and feels like he needs to control everything” says his foster mom. “He argues and resists like his very life depends on him winning the fight.”

Jonathan is obviously an angry child. But what is behind his anger? What fuels his rage? For Jonathan, as well as scores of other foster and adoptive children who display this out-of-control behavior, the answer is STARK FEAR. Many of you reading this can probably recall a situation when you were very angry about something—and in those times, you probably recall that your anger was connected to a situation that was out of your control. To have a sense of control over our lives is an innate need for all of us. For children like Jonathan--whose surroundings (including his birthparents) were in a constant state of chaos—the internal and primal need to control his environment trumps everything else. Even in his new, safe and nurturing home with his foster parents, his internal fear of having no control still reigns. He cannot show weakness

by displaying fear--thus he exhibits his fear through anger and rage, which is safer.

How can Jonathan be helped to feel safe, and thus not have to cope through anger? The

answers are fairly basic, but at the same time take much persistence and empathy on part of the parents. Here are some helpful ideas and approaches for parents;

  • Most importantly—and especially when you are at your wits’ end—know that kids like Jonathan are suffering deeply when their behavior is out of control.

  • Know that meltdowns are inevitable, and the most and least you can do during these episodes is to keep the child and those around him physically safe.

  • When behavioral outbursts are over, seek a “teachable moment” when the child is calm (which may not be until the day after the episode ) to talk calmly to him about what happened. Ask him about his fears. In their biological families, kids like Jonathan have often been robbed of the freedom to process their feelings— something that is critical for their healing.

  • You must make every effort to remain calm during a child’s outbursts. Refuse to engage in their escalation. Take deep, steady breaths (doing so helps your brain to remain calm so your emotions don’t escalate). Encourage the child to try and do the same.

  • This may sound odd, but after the meltdown is over, offer the child some water and a healthy snack. When kids get out of control emotionally, their blood sugar can get out of balance and they can also get dehydrated. Getting some fluid and nutrition into their system can actually help them (and you) to recover quicker.

  • Tell your child often that you love him, that you are there for him, and that you know that sometimes he gets afraid. In those “teachable moments” I mentioned above, talk with him about safer ways he can handle his frustrations and fears.


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