Attachment problems and foster kids
Im new to dealing with a foster child and am trying to learn about attachment issues and how to in general deal with a preteen with trust issues and behavior problems.

I wondered how foster parents who arenҒt doing foster-to-adopt deal with kids with attachment issues who only separated from their parent(s), are defensive about their parent(s) inadequacies and rejects anyone who tries to be a replacement parent?

To explain my situation, IҒm not quite a foster parent, but my husband and I are helping provide respite care for my cousin (she almost 13), who has been placed with her grandmother (my husbands aunt). Her grandma is dealing with a serious illness and may not be able to care for her much longer. Her mom is in prison and her dad has serious drug and mental health issues.

My cousin has behavior problems (you can read my [URL=""]other post for more details[/URL]).WeҒre being pressured by extended family to let her stay with us full time, but we have two young children and I know its a bad idea. The only way IҒm willing to do it is if her behavior improves.

I have been reading books on dealing with problem kids (like The Connected Child and Raising Kids Who Refuse to be Raised) and attachment disorders comes up a lot. But Im not sure thatҒs the problem nor how to attach or bond with an almost teen who is incredibly close to her mom, devastated about being separated from her and wants me in her words to f**k off and leave her aloneӔ.

My cousin hasnt been diagnosed with an attachment disorder (she is seeing a psychologist and has been diagnosed with anxiety and depression). She does have a lot of the symptoms of attachment disorders: defiance, control issues, explosive anger. Much of that is directed towards her grandma and me. She targets her grandma the most.

I assumed she was just reacting very badly to her mom being gone and being reminded of missing her mom but maybe it's attachment issues?

Consequences and reward systems havenҒt worked. She simply doesnt care. She is also highly distrustful of anything we say. She doesnҒt believe any praise is sincere. She would rather sneak around and steal than actually earn anything. (her mom is in prison for theft, so...)

Her parents and her grandmother have had serious issues in the past and theres a lot of negativity thatҒs been passed on to my cousin. Her dad blames his mom for all of his problems.

There are no serious abuse that Im aware of in my cousinҒs past, only a lot of instability, possible neglect and poor parenting. Her mom frequently left her alone while she was working or (more often) partying. She is very self-sufficient and was picking up the slack for her mom and taking care of herself from a fairly young age.

The problem is now Im trying to enforce limits, rules, structure when sheҒs never had this before, and shes responding by screaming and cursing at me and my daughters. And by storming out and leaving.

She says I treat her like a 5 year old, and I have to admit, I havenҒt parented a preteen/teen before. But I think Im being reasonable that she isnҒt allowed to go out by herself, use the stove, stay up as late as she wants, watch R rated movies, stay home alone, etc.

For example, she has issues with insomnia, gets up in the middle of the night and does whatever she wants around the house, and we caught her one night in the kitchen at 4am making a grilled cheese sandwich on the stove.

Her response when caught doing things she knows she isnt allowed to do is always, ғMy mom lets me do that or something like ԓIve been doing that since I was 6.Ҕ And shes just waiting for us to say something that she can jump on us for calling her mom a bad parent.

We're never going to win the battle of convincing her that her mom is wrong or a bad parent.

I think she knows that itҒs ridiculous that her mom let her do certain things but shes also accustomed to being treated by her mom as being almost an adult or her BFF, not a child. Trying to dial her back to age-appropriate things is being met with her being absolutely hateful towards me.

Everything IҒve read so far about attachment therapy is aimed at adoptive parents. My cousin is staying with us because she has to. She doesnt want to be here. Her behavior is so bad that itҒs difficult to have any positive feelings towards her and I don't feel the way about her that I do my biokids. I would like to help her understand that there are positive adults in her life that she can trust, but I dont want to be her mom and she doesnҒt want me to.

Im completely overwhelmed dealing with all these problems and I see the pattern of just increasing conflict. If conventional talk therapy doesnҒt work for attachment issues, then Im worried weҒre wasting our time with her current therapist.

While were relatives, she doesnҒt see us as her permanent family. All she talks about is when her mom will be released.

Her dad hasnt spoken to his mom in over 8 years, so she sees from her parents that thereҒs no need to have relationships with extended family.

Is this an attachment disorder? How do foster parents handle attachment therapy with a kid whos very focused on going back to their bioparent and doesnҒt want to be part of your family?
I will say now that have no experience with attachment disorders.

She sounds like she is hurt and scared like you mentioned. Parenting a preteen is very different than younger kids, and one who has basically parented herself will be even harder for sure. The great thing about her age is that you can reason with her and talk things out. Try to figure out what she is really capable of, maybe she can use the stove safely, or be in charge of laundry, or whatever.

Try explaining that she can used the stove during the day to make lunch (many kids do that by 9 or 10), but at night it can be dangerous to use it, because if left on or something catches fire, then it could be dangerous for everyone in the house. Being home alone would need rules, no using the stove, stay inside with the doors locked, and maybe just for a hour (again not uncommon for that age group). Let her know that these things are privileges, and she needs to show you that she can be responsible and follow the rules, and the more she behaves the more privileges she will get. From now until 18 a parent's job is to help them be complelty self sufficient on their own, and it seems like a lot of time, but it is really not considering all that goes into being an adult.

My Biological dd is 12, nearly 13, and when I want to talk about behavior or responsibilities we go out for a girls's day just the two of us. We have ice cream, eat lunch at the resturant of her choice, and maybe go for a walk at the park. That takes the 'lecture' out of it, and we chat about many other things during the day with the meat mixed in. This is a hard age, because they want to grow up, but there are still things that they are not capable of making good decisions about.

You are doing a great thing for her, and some day she will appreciate it. Can you two go to counseling together to have a third party help you work through these issues?
What she said..

I do have to say, though, that I do agree with your cousin that the rules are very babyish. If she has been largely taking care of herself, it is a huge step to ask for every.single.stinking thing. She has been adult-like in her responsibilities up until now..think about would you like it if starting tomorrow, you had to ask your husband before you could make a grilled cheese sandwich? Or take a walk around the block or meet your bff at Starbux? Even though she is not an adult, she has had the role of one for a long time. But, since she is ONLY 13yo, her reactions(overreactions) could be solely or mostly because of things she feels as a personal attack of her/her abilities.

My 13yo is largely independent, she can wash her own clothes whenever, has free reign of the kitchen, and can stay up as late as she wants on non-school days (on school nights she should be in bed @9:30 ish). IF she abuses/cannot handle the responsibility of these things, she gets babyish rules in that specific thing. I will take her & her friend to the zoo, and we will meet up at a specific time. Or I will drop them off at the movies or the waterpark. I am not going to hover over them, if I suspect an issue, I will check it out and adjust the hovering as needed.

So, I would suggest coming up rules/expectations together, with alot of input from the cousin. She may be more reasonable than you think.
Mommyof3ks said...
The great thing about her age is that you can reason with her and talk things out.

Let her know that these things are privileges, and she needs to show you that she can be responsible and follow the rules, and the more she behaves the more privileges she will get.

This is the part we're struggling with, because she doesn't want to listen or be told what she can or can't do. Having a civil conversation has become impossible without her blowing up, storming off, ignoring us or finding a way to retaliate.

I've asked her to help with cooking dinner, but she refuses.

If she was willing to listen, follow directions and be respectful, I'd be more willing to trust her, but I don't. We've been trying to explain to her that if she wants adult priviledges, then she needs to act like an adult. But she wants to be able to dictate to us what she's able to do by yelling and cussing at us.
I'm no expert, but I think if she is very bonded with her mom it's likely not attachment issues. My understanding is attachment issues are caused from LACK of bond, in the early years. Her issues are much more likely the result of poor parenting and being left to fend for herself. I don't think your rules are unreasonable ( except for the stove, my 8 yo can make his own grilled cheese) but because she is so used to being independent I'd try to come up what rules are non negotionable and what you can give some leeway on. Bedtimes on school nights are normal, Not so necessary on weekend. But, I, for one, need some wind down time after kids are in bed, even on weekends. So I might say she can stay up as late as wants but stay in her room after X time. Most 13 yos are allowed to watch R movies, I'm a little more strict in that department though. I would however, be willing to allow SOME R movies if I had previewed them and i would make her watch them in her room so little ones couldn't watch. Things like that, you can come up with compromise and still have structure.
You said you are asking her to act like an adult to get adult responsibilities. I'm not sure I have any suggestions since my kids are so different with different issues, but it got me wondering how she would describe adults as acting? What would acting like an adult look like to her? Did the adults around her get their needs met by lying, stealing, tantruming, etc? If so, maybe she is acting like an adult (or her idea of how adults act). I don't know how you can solve that. It sounds like she's clinging for dear life to a negative example and lifestyle that is familiar to her, and she may have been taught to distrust people who live your lifestyle.

I hope that you find a way to help her find her way onto a new and better path than the one she's clinging to now.
I don't think it sounds like an attachment issue either. It sounds more like a control issue or a teenager who is used to getting her way and no longer does. I wouldn't tell her "if you want to be treated like an adult..." I would emphasize that she isn't an adult, that she deserves to be loved and be taken care of so she can enjoy the rest of her childhood. I would sit down together, with your husband too, and set rules together.

I don't really agree with her not being able to be alone or use the stove, etc. These might be too strict. However, perhaps you can work up to letting her stay at home alone. Give her responsibilities so she can be proud of herself. Ask her if she'd like to cook dinner for the family a couple days a week. Let her take the reins and then get built up with praise.

As for your family pushing you to let her stay full time. Please don't let them. This is a LONG commitment and one you need to feel comfortable and confident with. Unlike other FF you didn't ask for this. You weren't looking to raise a teenager. I can understand how disruptive this has been to your life. Make sure to take care of you!
wren24 said...
We're never going to win the battle of convincing her that her mom is wrong or a bad parent.

I think she knows that its ridiculous that her mom let her do certain things but sheҒs also accustomed to being treated by her mom as being almost an adult or her BFF, not a child. Trying to dial her back to age-appropriate things is being met with her being absolutely hateful towards me....

It doesn't sound like attachment issues to me.

I remember getting in quite an argument with my grandmother when I was approx 12 yrs, because she didn't make mac and cheese the "right" way (the way my mom did). So maybe your cousin is in some normal human psychological stage when one's family's way feels like THE right way.

In any case, I would think it would be counterproductive and destructive to your relationship, if you criticize her mother's way of doing things. Especially right now when she is probably grieving and depressed. Losing a mom for 3 yrs would be a long time for any of us, but for a kid three years would sound a lot longer than to older people.

I think she sounds wild and yet very sad. Why doesn't she have friends, school activities, electronics, or something to enjoy?

She is at an age to appreciate music, does she have a favorite singer? To me it sounds like she needs to have something happy in her life, I think I would try to find ways to encourage her, praise her, love her, support her. But you need to remember she has no relationship with you and it will take time for a bond to form.

Does she like horse-back riding, is there a nice safe stable she could take regular lessons at? Horses can be very therapeutic.

It would probably help a lot if her mother would tell her she is in a good place with you and that she wants her to behave and follow your rules. That way she wouldn't have to feel like she is being a traitor if she does start to like you or feel safe with you.

I forget the exact ratio, but books on parenting talk about how we have to say a complimentary thing (a specific detail, not a generalized compliment) a LOT more often than a critical comment. That will be really hard with a wild and rebellious young teen, but I bet she would like to hear something positive. Personally, I think it is terrific that she can prepare her own grilled cheese sandwich! It's terrific she eats (somewhat) healthy food! It is awesome she is smart enough to walk away from confrontation! There is a lot you can find to appreciate about her? Does she actually close the door behind her when she goes out of the house? That could be appreciated! (We had to have a porch built after my daughter keeps not pushing the screen door shut and it tore the frame trying to blow off the house in the wind.)

If you can, try to fill her up with good feelings, I don't know which books they are but I remember reading about foster kids' "buckets" being empty and they need a lot of love to fill them up. A person can handle criticism better when their bucket is full. I think hers is probably bone-dry. Poor kid (annoying for sure, but still, pathetic).
Thanks for all the feedback and suggestions. I’m definitely going to work on being more positive and use compliment sandwiches (positive-negative-positive)

The reason I suspected she has an attachment disorder is that she has such distrust of adults and tries to control everyone. Possibly that’s because she has such a dysfunctional relationship with her mom and never really developed the kind of normal parent-child relationship due to neglect.

I wonder if it’s more of a Trauma Bond with her mom than a real, secure bond. Or a Disrupted Attachment where as a baby her needs were only some times met and she’s learned she can’t count on a parent to care for her.

Based on the Attachment Disorder Assessment Scale by Dave Ziegler, Ph.D, she has Moderate Attachment Disorder, but I’m not sure how far that is since there are other disorders that cause kids to be defiant and controlling.

I want to get to the root of the problem, because dealing with the day-to-day issues becomes so overwhelming.

We want to be able to do fun things with her, help her make friends and have a life besides obsessing over what’s happening with her mom. But there are two challenges: she doesn’t really want to do things with us and she manages to get into trouble so often.

For example, we had plans to take her to see The Hobbit. But earlier in the day, something set her off and she started an argument with my 4 year old and called her names that included obscenities. We can’t reward her after she’s done something like that and she claimed she didn’t want to go anyways when we grounded her.

Her grandmother has been using reward and consequence systems as recommended by her therapist in the beginning, but it’s gotten to the point where she knows that if she asks for anything, it’s going to be either used as carrot to try to get her to behave or taken away as a consequence. So she’s completely stopped telling us for anything she wants.

She’s been stealing money out of her grandma’s purse when she knows she could earn an allowance fairly easily by doing helping her grandma around the house.

If when I was her age I did what she’s been doing to my parents or my grandparents, I would be grounded for months. We don't want to reward her when she hasn't learned a lesson and doesn't care.
If her therapist believes her behaviors are a result of anxiety and depression (which sounds completely reasonable with the behaviors you've posted), I certainly wouldn't push for an attachment diagnosis.

I'd even go so far as to say, put away all the books (and web sites) about attachment disorders and talk to her therapist about strategies you can use to address your concerns -- if you talk to the therapist about specific incidents, he/she can likely provide you with different strategies than you have already tried.
I would guess that it isn't attachment disorder. She may be depressed. SHe's lost. No one is in control and she doesn't really know how to let them be anyway. Well, and then people are trying to get her to act like a 4th grader (at best).

I would approach her and her situation COMPLETELY differently. I did substitute teaching (ended up preferring high school) and we've had a couple teens (not many) other than our own two basically grown children (almost 18 and 20).

I would aim to work WITH her, treating her as old as possible. She is very likely to step up if given the chance. As for being unreasonable when you do try to be reasonable? A lot of that sounds like a defense mechanism. If she knows you are trying to find a way to give her the freedom she wants, she'll slowly let up.

*I* would apologize to her, stating much like you did here that you've never been the parent of a teenager; but would like to work with her if she'll give you a chance. I would tell her that you need her to let you know when you're screwing up, that you'd appreciate her doing it gently though because you really are trying. BTW, *I* had to do this with a 4yo who really did have attachment issues.

I would consider doing this conversation over pizza or starbucks or whatever.

Anyway, then I would tell her that she was right. If a kid can make a sandwich at six, they certainly can at 13. Tell her why it worries you. Come up with a game plan on how y'all can work out that issue. For example, a fire concern would be tops, I would think. Okay, so lay out the scenario and see if she knows what to do. If not, help her know what to do. But really, 13yos run households, she can make a sandwich.

Okay, so bedtime....I allow kids, about 6th grade, to start working out their own bedtime. THis is what my mom did with me and what I've done with Biological and foster kids. Basically, school is going to require most kids to get up at a certain time. The kid needs to work out when to go to sleep to meet their own sleep needs. It would be fine to have an upper limit with a child not used to doing this; but this may not be the issue you want to start with. She is used to managing this herself and has for a long time. She isn't going to understand why it needs to be your way now when it was just fine for years. *I* wouldn't touch this one for now EXCEPT to do things like picking up cell phones at 9pm and password/time locking the wi-fi at that time also. She is much more likely to go to bed if she isn't FBing or texting all night. IF sleep is an issue for her, you might suggest something like 1-3mg of melatonin to help her get to sleep. If she is on medication, you may also speak to her doctor to see if the sleep issues (as well as certain behaviors such as aggression) are related to unmedicated issues or medication side effects.

Okay, so going out by self....I would say that with this too you need to find a way to let her. Tell her that this is what you want and the two of you can brainstorm some ideas. Obviously, if she can call/text you with her location when she changes location or who she is with, this would be ideal. If you are doing the cell phone bill, you can get a tracking device also. I would let her know that this is for her safety and to build trust between you. Again, be super gentle, you're on her side, make it all about that you are inexperienced and just want to do it right and need her help. But in the meantime, you're also meeting her needs on levels she wants and doesn't necessarily care for. Another thing on this one is meeting friends as she makes them.

Same with staying home alone. 13yos are often babysitting, running households while parents work, etc. It is unreasonable to think she can't do so. SO what do you need to allow her this freedom that most 13yos have and that she has had for years? Texts every so often? Only for X amount of time (again, you need to be reasonable). Only if certain things weren't done?

Anyway, her behavior sounds to me like a kid who has had a bit of upheaval and then expected to behave like a little kid when she hasn't been in a long time.

As for not taking her unless her behavior changes? Well, I think the only way her behavior changes is if you'll take her and work with her. You're going to have to work through all the issues from treating her like the person she is versus a young child to the issues from the hand life has dealt her. She has the RIGHT to be sad, angry, hurt. She will do better when she CAN do better. It is going to take time.

I highly suggest Beyond Consequences, Logic, and Control by Heather Forbes. Maybe start with the 2nd book as it has a lot of examples. Empathize A LOT. Discipline (guiding, teaching) is not done IN the moment, but at a later time when everyone isn't upset. Sometimes, it doesn't even NEED to be done. Just like adults know when they messed up, teens do too, so if she knows what TO DO, then you might just let her work on it....and realize it may be slow going.

I hope this helps a little. Think: Empathize, work WITH her, be a safe place, pull rank only when you NEED to. It really does work. She is going to have to find her way in this world. Having you on her side is only going to help. Fighting with her is going to push her away making her feel that no one cares.

Hope any of this helps...
She is trying to control things because she is feeling out of control. We ALL do that to some degree or another. She may be doing it in unhealthy ways, but she's trying for good reason. Her life is messed up because of what adults have done. Stinks.

And she's going to grasp even harder at her thoughts about her mom as long as people try to push her to accept the situation and move on with life. She'll move on when she has gotten her needs met by doing what she's doing. Just be thankful it isn't including poop! LOL

Again, EMPATHIZE. Please. She really will do better when she can. Keep lessons short and collaborative and WAY after the situation. Keep it as helping her get what she wants. Lose most punishment and reward (though some logical consequences may seem like those sometimes). Empathize some more. ANd more.
servnjah, I end up liking a lot of your posts, but that is one of the best ever.
I agree 100 percent with servnjah. Great post. Lots of valid, workable, points.
It's a lot easier to blame attachment problems because then her mom is to blame. Otherwise, it's a lot more difficult to deal with.

It's very difficult to be sympathetic towards her after how terribily she has treated her grandmother and my daughters.

Twice now in the last three days she's has been incredibly verbally abusive to her grandma- screaming and yelling at her some very hateful things and using a long list of obsenities. One of these incidents happened while some volunteers from her grandma's church where there to help.

My cousin is completely unremorseful. She won't apoligize.

There's absolutely no way she can remain with her grandma. Her grandma was recently diagnosed with lymphoma, which is hopefully treatable, but she also has diabetes and complications from that. She needs to focus on her health.

I realize now that I'm not equiped at all to deal with a teen with this type of behavior problems and I don't want her around my kids. If she's having these problems now, what will she be like in another year? There aren't any other relatives in this area that can take her. She might be able to go stay with my husband's brother in the short term, but he's not married and doesn't have any experience dealing with kids. More likely she's going to end up in foster care.
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