Children in foster care have all experienced varying degrees of abuse, neglect, and multiple placements. They typically have increased social, emotional, and behavioral problems, most often due to their inability to modulate internal affective or feeling states. These children have experienced overwhelming amounts of internal emotional distress at an age when they were ill-equipped to manage their emotional states. The end result is that children in foster care have increased behavioral problems, and these behavioral problems create distress for the families with whom they are living.

We know that punishing these children is ineffective, as punishment does not actively add or teach anything. In fact, when parents use negative reinforcement, it most typically reinforces negative behaviors. What these children most need to learn is how to regulate or manage their internal emotional states. They need to develop the skill of returning to a state of calm after a stressful experience. But how does a child with social and emotional deficits learn these critical life skills? Hired for the job – foster parents who are willing and able to become their foster child’s emotional tutor.

Emotional Intelligence

Becoming a traumatized child’s emotional tutor is no easy task. It requires that parents have increased emotional intelligence. This does not mean that parents have to be perfect and never show any negative emotion, such as anger and frustration. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Your child needs you to express all of your emotions – not just the warm fuzzy ones, so he or she can see how it’s done. The difference here is that parents with increased emotional intelligence are not just “emotionally reacting” to external stressors, they are able to model healthy ways to manage their own internal distress.

A parent with increased emotional intelligence might say, “Mom is frustrated right now, I’m going to take a few minutes to calm down before we talk about how we’re going to solve this problem.” With increased emotional intelligence, we begin to see and understand that most of our emotional reactions are the result of our own internal perceptions and interpretations. So instead of saying, “you make me so mad,” we would be correct in saying, “I make myself so mad when I perceive or think about…” The golden rule when emotionally tutoring your child is to be mindful that we, as parents, are modeling our own emotional intelligence all the time. Children in our care are always learning from our example. It is much like teaching your child a dance. Our own dance is the dance we teach. Is that dance reactive and impulsive, attentive and loving, or busy and detached?

The Emotional Dance

When a parent is emotionally tutoring a high-needs child, it is critical that the parent leads the emotional dance. So when the high-needs child is in a state of distress, anger or hyperarousal, it is imperative that the parent responds to the needs of the child by providing the external regulation that is necessary to return the child to a state of calmness. Because the child’s early attachment needs were not met, they cannot “internally” regulate their affective states. So using interventions like room time or time-outs are often ineffective because this would assume that the child could auto-regulate or self-soothe.

In emotional tutoring, the parents are always thinking about what they are actively teaching, or adding to the child’s skill repertoire. What does the child’s behavior indicate that he or she needs? It is important to note that the question is always, what does the child need to learn? Is this behavioral issue related to a skill deficit? What is the underlying need? What the child is saying verbally he or she wants and what he or she needs are not the same thing. The child is most often stuck in a defensive pattern of reacting, and does not have increased insight into what he or she needs.

The goal here would be to increase the child’s ability to return to a state of calm after a dysregulating event, so the parent would use a time-in, where the parent provides the external structure the child needs to return to a state of calm. The parent would remove the child from the stimulating environment and proceed to down-regulate the child. With a small child this would involve rocking, singing, deep pressure rubs down the spine; with an older child it might involve taking a walk together, exercising, listening to music or expressive arts.

Once the child is in a state of calm, a re-do is always the consequence, as the child learns most quickly through experience. A re-do is where the desired behavior is practiced. Once the child is successful, the parent bathes the child in affective pleasure – “good job, look how smart you are!” or “Wow, look what you can do, I’m so proud of you!” When children’s early attachment needs are not met, their ability to relax, attend and think through solutions – is greatly diminished.

Children in foster care desperately need their foster parents to actively tutor them emotionally, but this requires that parents think non-traditionally about how they are responding to misbehavior. When a parent can remain calm in the eye of the storm, and model for their child in care how to manage internal distress, the child learns the dance of increased emotional intelligence, which is how to think before one reacts.

Emotions Are Contagious

Emotions are contagious; it’s easy to “catch” an emotion. This is perhaps the most difficult challenge for foster parents today. Children in foster care live with chronic, overwhelming emotional distress, which means foster parents live in an environment where their emotional states and skills are being constantly taxed. It is most typical to respond to an angry child with anger, a defiant child with defiance and a distressed child with distress.

Emotional tutoring requires that the foster parent does the hard work of not following the child into a negative emotional state, but becomes the leader of the emotional dance between parent and child and actually pulls the child out of distress, frustration, and anger. This is most easily done when parents model their own healthy emotional coping skills, like using humor to help alleviate stress, “Can anyone tell mommy a joke right now, because I sure need to laugh?”

Emotional tutors are aware that they are setting the emotional tone within the family and develop a bag of tricks to alleviate the stress that the child in care brings into the home. This bag of tricks can include things like: joke night at the dinner table, all-day pajama day, costume night where all members have to dress up and stay in character, role reversal night at the dinner table where the kids fix dinner and the parents get to whine, or playing feelings charades. Foster parents who are able to be creative and playful, will find that they are teaching the kids in their care how to cope effectively with life’s stressors.

The Healing Power of Play

One of the biggest problems for many children in foster care is that they have not experienced enough pleasure. The first five years of life are supposed to be filled with loads of pleasure, fun and play. In fact, play is the language of children. They learn best through play. But what if the child does not know how to play? This may sound like a small problem, but in reality, it is enormous for the child in foster care.

Giving and receiving pleasure is one of the most important things the child learns in the early parent and child attachment relationship. Human connections are supposed to be pleasurable, but what if the child has not learned this, and subsequently does not know how to give and receive pleasure? And what if the child is stuck in chronic states of distress, and does not know how to pull him or herself out of these states? Again, what the child most needs is emotional tutoring.

One of the best ways to tutor the child is to engage him or her daily in play. Each time you play with the child in care, you replace distress with pleasure, frustration with laughter, and isolation with connectedness. In addition, you will provide the child with the experiences that he or she needs to strengthen emotional and social development. The child will learn good impulse control when he or she is playing a board game where he or she is required to take turns. The child will learn how to think in a more organized way when playing structured games that have a beginning, middle, and end. They will learn how to express their feelings with words when they play “feelings charades.” They will learn how to be sensitive to other people’s needs and cues as they play social games.

Cooperative games are best because the players together are playing against the game rather than competing against each other. They will learn how to attend and focus when they are engaged in games like Concentration, Clue, and other similar games. But most of all, they will slowly learn how to replace chronic distress with pleasure, fun, and play. They will develop coping skills that will last a lifetime. In fact, social and emotional skills have been found to be more critical to life’s success than one’s intellectual ability.

Yes, it is true that children in foster care have been negatively impacted by abuse, neglect and/or multiple disruptions in attachment. Children in foster care come to families with social and emotional skill deficits. These deficits create parenting challenges for foster parents. The good news is that children change, grow, and heal within the context of a healing relationship. So now we have another skill to add to the foster parents’ resume. You are hired for the job – emotional tutor.

Being an Emotional Tutor for a Child in Foster Care, The Foster Parenting Toolbox, 2012 EMK Press and Fostering Families Today, Jan/Feb 2007 Louis & Company Publishing

Allison is a clinician, educator, and advocate specializing in adoption/permanency, attachment, and trauma. She is passionate about creating systems of care that are permanency-competent and strength-based. She has expertise in the fields of child welfare, trauma and mental health and is currently the chief operating officer of the National Center on Adoption and Permanency. Allison is co-author and master trainer of Kinship Center’s ACT: An Adoption and Permanency Curriculum for Child Welfare and Mental Health Professionals, co-author and master trainer of Pathways to Permanence: Parenting the Child of Loss and Trauma, and creator of 10 Things Your Child Needs Every Day, a DVD with tools that help parents/caregivers strengthen their attachment relationship with their child. You can reach Allison at or (949) 939-9016.

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