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Adoptive parents, special guardians, kinship carers and foster carers

As an adoptive parent, special guardian, kinship carer or foster carer, you play a vital role in supporting a child or young person who has had a unique start in life.

Some children who are fostered, adopted or looked after by connected carers will need extra help to feel safe and secure. This can be both rewarding and challenging for you as a parent or carer. Whatever your situation, resources and services are available to help.

Understanding your child's experiences

If you are an adoptive parent, special guardian, kinship carer or foster carer, you know that your child brings with them a history of loss and change. For some this includes experiences of abuse, neglect, and trauma. It might feel difficult to understand the long-term impact of these experiences, particularly if your child has been living in a safe and secure environment for some time.

It is not inevitable that children who have been adopted or are in foster care will experience extra difficulties. But by learning about the potential impact of your child’s earliest experiences on their development, you will be in a better position to identify difficulties if they do emerge.

Grief and loss

All fostered and adopted children have experienced an important loss – their separation from their birth family. This is true even where children have been adopted shortly after birth. Some might have also experienced losses in relation to their birth culture, language, or religion. Children need ongoing help to think about and make sense of the reasons they are looked after away from their birth parents. By being sensitive to your child’s feelings and potential questions about their identity, you can help your child to communicate, process and understand these difficult feelings.

Insecurity in relationships and attachment difficulties

Due to their early experiences of loss, children who have been adopted or are with connected carers or foster carers often find it especially hard to form trusting relationships (‘attachments’) with the adults who care for them. The difficulties may be more significant if the child has experienced moves between multiple carers in the past.

Effects on brain development

Neuroscience is just starting to explain how early trauma can change the brain’s growth and development, potentially affecting learning, behaviour, relationships and health. Not all children are affected in the same way - some may show little reaction, for others the impact is delayed, and for others still the effects are severe and immediate. By developing an understanding of the potential impact of early trauma on child development, you will be equipped to help your child to understand themselves, to respond sensitively as their caring adult and to find help when it is needed.

This webpage features videos and an animation from Childhood Trauma and the Brain by the UK Trauma Council licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.

Childhood trauma and the brain

A general introduction to what happens in the brain after children face traumatic experiences in childhood, like abuse and neglect.

How mental health problems develop

Professor Eamon McCrory explains what scientists have learned about how mental health problems develop overtime.

How research can help foster carers

Katherine Mautner, Play Therapist at Anna Freud, discusses how understanding why children and young people may struggle to respond to their care helps all to work towards responding differently.

Stay connected to your child’s experiences

As you build a trusting relationship with your child, it’s possible there will be times when they act in unexpected ways. By keeping an open mind about who your child is, the kind of experiences that they’ve had, and the way this affects their responses to your care, you’ll be well placed to understand the meaning of your child’s behaviour, and meet any underlying needs.

Take a moment when you need one

In moments where your child is really pushing your buttons, give yourself space to cool off. You can find your own preferred way of doing this – for example by stepping outside when things get heated, or making a time to note your thoughts in a journal. By taking time to reflect on what is going on before responding, you will put yourself in a much better position to handle difficult emotions and reconnect with your child.

Continue enjoying yourselves together!

When you’re having fun with your child, you’re naturally helping your child to build trust and feel secure. Activities like swimming, playing ball, non-competitive games, even going to a theme park, are all ways of promoting attachment security and getting to know your child. 

Practice using the idea of safety

When you notice something unusual or difficult about your child’s behaviour, try and ask yourself whether this could be related to the child feeling unsafe. For example, if they find it difficult to settle at bedtime – might this be because the separation required for sleep feels scary to them? Or if they seem to find it difficult to get them to leave the house, might this be because the uncertainty of where they are going and what will happen is experienced as fear? If you develop the habit of focusing on offering and returning your child to a sense of safety in response to difficult behaviours, you might find ways of calming things down that work better than other responses that are more focused on the behaviour (such as limit setting, giving consequences).

Helping a child create coherent memories

Katherine Mautner, Play Therapist at Anna Freud , gives practical examples for foster carers to use to help children and young people make sense of their experiences.

The importance of staying connected to a child’s experience

This video is a part of the Childhood Trauma and the Brain resource - a general introduction to what happens in the brain after children face traumatic experiences, like abuse and neglect.

The value of curiosity for foster carers

Katherine Mautner, Play Therapist at Anna Freud , discusses how curiosity can help carers respond in a way that is more sensitive and appropriate to the children in their care.

There are many organisations, professionals, and supportive services available to help.

Reflective Fostering is a new approach to foster care developed by the Anna Freud Centre. It aims to promote the quality of relationships, support effective and sensitive foster care, and help carers to help the child in their care understand and manage emotions better. The Centre is currently involved in a national evaluation of the Reflective Fostering Programme. Find out more

Our Adoption and Special Guardianship Support Services support children, parents and carers before, during and after the making of Adoption or Special Guardianship Order. We accept referrals from families and professionals. Find out more.If you are an adoptive parent, you may be eligible to receive funding for post-adoption assessment and/or treatment via the Adoption Support Fund. For more information see the Adoption Support Fund.

Our Nurturing Change service is a national service using Video-feedback Intervention to promote Positive Parenting and Sensitive Discipline (VIPP-SD) to support parents, carers and special guardians. VIPP-SD has a strong evidence-base, with research consistently showing it is effective in helping parents and children's development and wellbeing. Find out more.

The UK Trauma Council offers accessible and evidence-based resources (including videos and animations) for parents, carers and professionals supporting young people who have experienced trauma.

Adoption UK offers peer support opportunities for adoptive parents. Their helpline gives information and support to adopters who are experiencing challenging behaviour from their children.