Q: Being a foster parent is so rewarding, but I’m not sure how to help my foster child deal with her anxiety and depression. Is this normal and how can I help her?– Roxanne – Queen Cre
A: Excellent question. Before answering, I’m really glad to hear you comment how rewarding foster care is. When working with children, I’ve always felt that they give me way more than I ever give them. I think it’s that sense of reward that makes all the challenges worthwhile—and we know that there are no shortages of challenges in foster care.
You ask an excellent question, given the prevalence of anxiety, depression and other mental health-related disorders within the foster care population. A resounding YES is the answer to the question about the normalcy of foster children living with anxiety and depression. Given the reasons children and adolescents come to be in foster care, it’s almost a wonder that every individual in the foster care system doesn’t suffer from anxiety and depression. If not as a result of the abuse and neglect that caused their entry into the system, from the sense of hopelessness and lack of control over one’s life that the foster care system creates, albeit not intentionally. Factors contributing to the mental and behavioral health of children and youth in foster care includes the history of complex trauma, frequently changing situations and transitions, broken family relationships, inconsistent and inadequate access to mental health services and the over-prescription of psychotropic medications (Mental Health and Foster Care, National Conference of State Legislatures, May 9, 2016).
Studies show that up to 80 percent of children in foster care have significant mental health issues, compared to approximately 18-22 percent of the general population. In addition, more than 15 percent of foster care alumni suffer from major depression and more than nine percent suffer from general anxiety disorder.
The most important thing foster parents can do to help a child or adolescent with anxiety or depression is to be understanding, empathetic, and to not take behavioral manifestations of their mental health issues personally. These individuals are hurting and they simply need to learn effective coping skills for managing these disorders. Secondly, a critical element of support is to seek professional help in the diagnosis and treatment of the suspected mental health issues. You can start with your pediatrician or seek out a behavioral health professional, as they are going to be the ones to develop the best treatment package, so to speak, for your specific child’s situation. While treatment is not a one-size fits all, common elements of effective treatment for anxiety and depression include psychotropic medication and counseling (e.g. EMDR, trauma-focused cognitive-behavioral therapy, etc.).
Finally, there are some things you can do as a foster parent and caregiver for a child living with a mental health disorder such as anxiety and depression. Probably the most important thing is to honor their mental issues as being real—as opposed to not being made up for attention or manipulation. A direct outgrowth of how you view their condition is how you should respond to it: with compassion, support, and not making them feel any more “abnormal” than they already do. The more you can do to make them feel safe involve them in family and community activities for an increased sense of belonging and connection, the better. Finally, a simple activity you can encourage is one that is healthy for all — exercise. The more the better!
Paul Davis, LCSW, BCBA, LBA, Director of Foster Care Services at Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health. For more information, visit: DevereuxAZ.org