What the Church needs to know about parenting vulnerable children

Understanding why and how parenting may need to be different when caring for vulnerable children.

Caring for children who have suffered early trauma or neglect will often require new and different types of parenting. Some traditional models or styles of discipline simply won’t be effective, and at times they may even be detrimental to children’s ongoing progress and their emotional well-being.

Krish and Miriam give an example of this in the Home for Good book:

Imagine you are walking down the road with your family when a large dog walks past and snarls, scaring your adopted four-year-old. He jumps away and runs into the road, where he narrowly escapes being hit by a car. A typical instinctive reaction to this would be to shout at your son. ‘Get out of the road. Come here. Never jump into oncoming traffic. You frightened me and you nearly got yourself killed’.

A typical child would cope well with this reaction. It has appealed to their inbuilt sense of shame (‘you frightened me’) and their sense of self-preservation (‘you nearly got yourself killed’). As the situation naturally diffuses and returns to equilibrium, the parent might use the incident to teach their child about the Green Cross Code, and all is well.

A traumatised child would not cope well with this reaction at all. Their sense of shame and self-preservation is likely to be missing or immature due to lack of nurture from birth. All they hear is shouting. So first they have been frightened by the dog, then by the car, then by the parent figure. It is a pattern they are all too familiar with and affirms what they already believe – that the world is a dangerous place, whatever they do. The overwhelming emotional overload may have reminded them of previous traumas and tricked the child’s body into the flight response…

A different reaction is called for.

Krish and Miriam go on to talk about Therapeutic Parenting, a style of parenting that many foster carers and adopters seek to use with their children that emphasises empathy, nurture, structure and connection. Others will develop their own strategies to enable the children they love and care for to grow and flourish. Those who are considering fostering or adoption need to be open to developing these new parenting techniques and models, intentional to each child.

Thankfully, we have heard lots of stories from foster carers and adopters who have been encouraged and affirmed in this, but sadly, we have also heard of too many stories of foster carers or adopters feeling judged, shamed, or even overtly criticised because of how they are trying to parent – and this has happened within the Church as well as outside of it.

As the Church, keen to support families who foster or adopt and be a place of welcome and acceptance, we need to recognise and respect different ways of parenting, and we also need to be open to doing things differently where needed, especially when vulnerable children become a part of our church’s ministry.

To equip us all to do this better, we have three suggestions for anyone keen to support and understand adopters and foster carers who are parenting vulnerable children. Hopefully these tips will be easy to remember, as they happen to follow A, B, C!

Avoid assumptions

Every child is unique, with unique experiences and a unique way of processing and dealing with these experiences. Even if you have previously supported foster or adoptive families, or you’ve had a looked after child in your children’s ministry, don’t assume that any new arrival will be like other children or they will require the same boundaries or guidance.

Foster carers and adopters would far rather be asked if there are any particular routines, strategies or techniques that are beneficial for the child, than risk the child be unnecessarily upset or confused. Also, don’t assume that things will always stay the same. Once a child has been with a family for a while there may need to be some changes, so be adaptable and understanding to this.

It is also vital that you don’t make assumptions or judgements about parents’ or carers’ styles of parenting. You don’t know the full story of each child and the particular struggles or triggers they may have.

It may be that a child has issues around food and mealtimes because for a number of years they didn’t know if they would eat that day, or a child struggles to share because they had never previously had toys of their own. Traditional discipline methods like time outs or the ‘naughty step’ would be an unhelpful and damaging approach with children who were once locked in their room for hours on end, and a ‘good telling off’ would be traumatising to a child who witnessed domestic violence.

Foster carers and adopters develop intentional parenting techniques for each child using their skills and experience, what knowledge they have of the child’s past, and often, out of creative necessity to find the things that work – and even those strategies won’t always work. Your respect, encouragement and understanding will be a great support to them.

Beyond behaviour

Any child’s behaviour is a form of communication, telling you something about how they’re currently feeling, or what they currently want or need. It can also tell you about who they are and what they’ve experienced.

Obviously, if a child is feeling frustrated, anxious, overwhelmed or angry, or they’re tired or hungry, this might be communicated through ‘bad’ behaviour. Hopefully, a child will have an adult or adults around them from birth who will be available to meet their needs and seek to understand their feelings, and then help them to manage their behaviour.

If a child has not had this stable and nurturing adult figure, it will likely affect their behaviour. In many cases this could lead to ‘bad’ behaviour, from a child who is unable to navigate the big feelings they are battling with or a child who struggles to trust people because they suffered abuse or neglect. But this could also result in too much inappropriate ‘good’ behaviour, such as being overly compliant or caring for younger siblings, to the detriment of their own childhood.

Foster carers and adopters will be aware of this as they develop their parenting strategies, seeking to find techniques that address the behaviour but primarily support the child in working through their experiences.

By understanding and seeking to look beyond the behaviour at the child, recognising that there will be past experiences you don’t know about, you will make a real difference. Look instead at the child’s heart, their unique gifts and traits, and the huge potential they have.

Compassionate commitment

This suggestion doesn’t need much explanation. By committing to journeying with a family – supporting them, championing them, encouraging them, affirming them – and doing so with love, empathy and compassion, you will be part of ensuring that all foster and adoptive families are made welcome in our churches.

"Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds.” Hebrews 10.24

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