19 answers

4 y.o. Foster Child Violent, Won't Listen, Testing

Very long now, update at bottom.

My partner and I are foster parents who recently had a 4 year old placed who is giving us a serious run for our money. He's been with us for three weeks and had about a week's honeymoon period, but since then he’s become increasingly violent towards the 2 y.o. and is ignoring our rules more and more. We do know that his bio family didn’t discipline him at all, which is much of the reason he was pulled, so we expected an amped up level of testing, but our methods (time-outs mostly) seem to be going nowhere.

Last night he ran out of the house to play without permission, with the two year old in toe, when I went to the bathroom (I will be installing extra locks on the outer doors today). This morning he climbed over a baby gate and unzipped the crib tent that keeps the 2 y.o. safe (in place because the little one has a habit of climbing out of crib and trying to climb over gate at top of stair) before we were awake. We have explained the importance of not going outside without one of us and of not opening/climbing over gates numerous times. So the morning started out poorly, with an immediate time-out, when we were awoken by all the shenanigans. Before breakfast he had be sent to time-out again three times for hitting the little one. The first two times I witnessed it. The third time the little one came and told me, but he was adamant that he didn’t do it when I asked him, so I let it go – then a minute later he came over to the little one saying, “I won’t ever do it again.” While in time out he then accused the little one of talking to him (we have a rule that if someone is in time-out other kids don’t talk to them until time out is over) when the little one did no such thing! Between breakfast and lunch he got 5 additional time-outs (once for hitting the little one, once for hitting and kicking me, once intentionally trying to ruin something and twice for opening baby gates). Each time time-out is over we go over why he had to go into time out. In between time-outs I try to give him positive attention and praise things he is doing well or when he obeys a redirection. Normally he goes down to sleep (whether nap or bed) fairly easily with just a little whining, but it has now been an hour and a half and he is still in there talking and won’t even stay in bed. I was hoping to start fresh with something he really likes to do after he’d gotten some rest, but now I don’t want to risk a complete melt down out in public because he hasn’t taken a nap. All of this being said, he can be very endearing and helpful when he is well rested and he wants to be.

I can handle his whining and crying and screaming that he hates me, but the violence and constant testing – not to mention that the things he’s doing could have very dangerous consequences – are really starting to make me wonder if there is something else I can be doing or if we’ve simply gotten in over our heads with this placement. I fear his behavior is also beginning to influence the 2 y.o.'s previously manageable behavior. We always try to keep a kid with us once they are placed because each disruption in a child’s life is emotionally awful for a kid, plus it makes any existing issues worse. Does anybody have any suggestions that will help us, or him, control his behaviors?

Update: It's only been a couple days since I asked for your help and I've been blown away by the response! Thank-you! I haven't had a chance to look at the resources you've suggested, but will do so as soon as I can. I just wanted to add some more details/clarifications that are relevant to think about when we work with him. He does go to a preschool program (morning program) and also a daycare during the day - both of us work full time. We had wanted to put him in a full day program (either preschool or daycare) so he'd have less transitions each day, but he has been able to stay in the same school and we didn't want to take the one thing that has been constant for him away. He had been given a diagnosis of ADHD, but I don't agree with this (I've had a fair bit of professional training in this stuff). I would diagnose him with reactive attachment disorder: both from his history and the way that his parents interact with him - he definately meets criteria for this. The hard part about this is that when we would normally really be working on attachment with him, he *will* be leaving us. A family member has stepped up to take him mid-summer, so I'm not sure trying to get him to form an attachment with us is the way to go!?! He already had numerous placements by the time he got to us, so we don't want to disrupt him again, but we are getting more and more worried about how this is affecting the 2 y.o. (who yesterday put his hands around the neck of an infant at daycare!) and we're worried that he will actually hurt the 2 y.o. We've got many precautions in place to prevent that from happening, such as baby gates, etc, but the problem is he's not a baby. He is a very clever 4 y.o. who has had a lot of practice getting out of locked places. He is seeing a play therapist. We are very stuctured at our house, trying to be consistant, he generally gets a nap (or at least quiet time) b/c he is a bear if he doesn't get one, and we already keep a no-added sugar, dye-free diet whenever we can (but I will be paying closer attention to this). All of your ideas are wonderful - I especially like the "best/worst part of the day review" and it's certainly good to be reminded of "catching him doing good things." I think I will also put sticker charts up everywhere.

If anyone has any further ideas, let me know! I've already spoken to the family member taking him in the summer and will be passing on your suggestions/resources.

What can I do next?

Featured Answers

Well this is first time I've ever heard of a child being taken for the lack of discipline. First have you looked at his diet, such as food allergies. He could be having a reaction to chocolate caffine for the dies in colored cereal. Or he could be looking for attention and he knows this behavior will get it. You have had him for a very short time to correct any behavior he learned at home. Keep working with him he sounds like a wonderful child who needs love not dicipline. Good Luck

More Answers

Are you familiar with something called RAD, Reactive Attachment Disorder? It sounds like this might be a possibility. He is definitely trying to prove that you're not going to love him, and you're just going to leave as well. You have tried the time-out punishment already. Negative attention is better than no attention. I'm not saying that he is lacking attention, but it sounds like he is out to prove something. Perhaps you should try the "catch him being good" approach. In other words, no matter what the situation, you have to find something good. Good boy, you are keeping your hands to yourself. I'm so proud of you. Don't focus on the negative. Focus on the positive to change his mood from negative to positive. He might be having a tantrum on the floor, but good boy, you're not kicking your friend.

They used this with my daughter with Down Syndrome in school when she would exhibit behaviors. It actually worked well. She would forget about the negative, and she would stop the behavior. She got attention, positive attention.

Believe me, he knows what he is doing is wrong. He gets something from it, or he wouldn't do it. He's going through a very big transition. I think he just wants you to prove that you care about him, because he truly feels that no one does.

Good luck!

1 mom found this helpful

I know it is hard, but hang in. The child has been through a lot more than poor discipline if he was taken into custody by child protection workers. The worst thing for him would be to go through many foster placements.

Our granddaughter was traumatized prior to coming to live with us. We sought out a Play Therapist and it has worked wonders. I also will suggest setting aside a 'special time' for you and your foster son to do something together. That is how bonds are formed.

About me: 59 yr old married RN, kinship caregiver.

I know it's important for every family to find a method of discipline that works for them. And I know some families have success with time-outs. However, it seems that, in your case, they are really not working. I know it can be hard trying to figure out what to do, but your foster child clearly isn't taking time-outs seriously.

The easy first steps for you really are to toddler-proof your house, installing safety devices and locks that he can't reach/undo. Beyond that, to deal with the behavior, you've got to show that you're serious about consequences. Have you been talking with him about the consequences of his actions? Did you have him try to fix or remake what he intentionally tried to ruin? Have you talked with him about how he would feel and what would happen/what he thinks should happen if someone kicks =him=, and what kind of consequence that person should get?

It can't be easy and I wish you all the best!

Well this is first time I've ever heard of a child being taken for the lack of discipline. First have you looked at his diet, such as food allergies. He could be having a reaction to chocolate caffine for the dies in colored cereal. Or he could be looking for attention and he knows this behavior will get it. You have had him for a very short time to correct any behavior he learned at home. Keep working with him he sounds like a wonderful child who needs love not dicipline. Good Luck

have you read children are from heaven from john gray. he gives a different perspective of children adn they; inherently want to please us and just a change in how we ask them to do things can sometimes make a world of difference. especially since this foster child has had a rough start and doesn't necessarily know the proper boundaries. mother of four 13 11 8 and 1 don't give up he is probably jsut lookin for some attention and more boundaries. Jophn gray really focues on positive reinforcement.... I like that... K.

Hi J.~
First I want to thank you and your husband for stepping up and being foster parents. If it weren't for people like you these kids would be in big trouble. You're doing a wonderful thing.

So, it sounds to me like you're doing all the right things with this new little guy. Remember that he's had 4 years to learn all his bad behaviors so it's not going to change overnight. Sounds like he's been testing boundaries all his little life so it's just become second nature to him. Since time outs don't seem to be working maybe finding something that he really likes and using that as your bargaining chip. "Finding his currency" is what Dr. Phil calls it. Something he can feel and see like a new toy of some kind or poker chips in a jar towards a great reward. Be sure to not to make the goals too unattainable so he can feel the joy (no pun intended!) of reaching it in order to keep it as an affective tool.

There's also alot of research regarding food allergies in children causing behavioral disorders. Maybe trying a gluten free/dairy free diet might help as well.

Whatever you try it seems that lots of patience are in order for this one!! Good luck to you and again thank you for what you do!!


I think that using time outs is a great way to discipline, but I also think that this little one needs to learn some responsibility. Instead of a time out for every action, how about a consequence appropriate for his age? I used 1,2,3, magic on my children and found that if I gave a time out for every offense, they soon did not think much of that punishment and acted out more just like your foster child. As a family, we came up with a rule list of the house and a consequence of what would happen for each offense that was committed. For example: my oldest had a favorite bear and blanket that he did everything with, so if he hit his brother, I would place him in a time out and then after he got out, his blanket or bear went into a 'time out' too. He got more upset over bear getting a time out than himself, so the hitting stopped quicker. My youngest never had a security item so he was harder to discipline. With him, we had to take away his toy privileges or t.v./movie time. The biggest part of this was including the whole family in making the rules of the house up. We set the rules that we knew were a must, but we also let our children come up with a few rules to have their imput. Then we came up with an agreed upon result if a rule was broken (tailored to each person so that it was meaningful). The rule poster helped everyone to know the rules, consequences, and all were involved so it was a family strength for us. It also made a huge difference when friends started coming over for play dates. My kids used to point at the poster and show their friends the rules of the house with a stern warning not to break them or they could not come back over! It sounds to me like your foster child is looking for attention and needing structure that he did not have. Keep up with the consistency... he is testing you there. I just think he needs to know that you love him, care about him, and want to see him turn out the best that he can. You may want to add positive reinforcement to his behavior, too. Say like if he goes for a day or two with out breaking the rules, then he gets a reward, same for the two year old. If they both go a whole week, then the whole family gets a reward like going to the zoo or children's museum. I am sure you get the idea of what I am trying to say. It worked in our family. I hope these suggestions help you. C.

J. -

First, I just want to give you credit for being a foster parent, that is something I have always wanted to do but never sure how to go about doing it.

It sounds like he's testing the waters. I have an 8 and 7 year old (boys), and the most important thing is being consistent, so he can know for sure the consequence if he misbehaves.

Time out is good at that age. In my house, I would count to 3 and if the behavior didn't stop, it was time out. My boys had to sit up straight on the couch, no laying down or slouching, no talking for the duration (one minute for each year of age). That is a HUGE challenge for them at 4 years old and they hated every minute of it. The time out wouldnt begin until they were sitting quietly.

It sounds like a huge challenge, but the key is to be consistent. As you continue to do this, hopefully within a few weeks/months, it will click. Maybe longer if he never had discipline before. It sounds like you are doing everything right.

As to re-place him, that's a hard decision to make. I wouldn't give up just yet - but that's me and I'm not in your shoes to make that decision.

Good luck to you and keep us posted!!!

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