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

Updated on May 22, 2008
J.K. asks from Greenfield, MA
19 answers

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.

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answers from Burlington on

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

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answers from Boston on

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


answers from Burlington on

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.



answers from New London on

Wow, this takes me back 5 years when my daughter first moved in with me. She was 5 1/2, taken into care at 4 and after a couple of foster homes, spent the 13 months prior to adoption with one family. They are her angels!
Where do I begin?......firstly, because she was so wild and uncontrollable, her and her sister were separated because no one could handle them together. Here we are with the "no rules, no discipline" in the bio home.
She learned to follow the rules at her foster home but reverted right back to being wild when she moved in with me.
We tried the time-outs....she couldn't even sit in the chair for two minutes. She was everywhere, upside down, hanging all over the chair. (I am laughing now just thinking about it but it was a horror show back then). I worked with a behavioural specialist from the Children's Aid who came to my house every week and checked in on us. Her suggestion was sticker charts. I had charts everywhere!! ha ha. They worked to some degree. This goes along the line of positive reinforcement, like most everybody has said. I picked two behaviours at a time to work on. Some of the things we had to work on were....sitting at the table to eat...staying in bed.....not climbing on the furniture....not climbing on people.....not trashing the bedroom....not throwing toys at me....safety in the car....not running off....the list goes on. I made my own stickers to save money. The rewards were small and sometimes I would let her pick some rewards to work for. That she liked. Things like a chocolate bar or an ice cream were worth working for. My worker constantly stressed to me to work on the positve approach....boy it was tough at times. I felt like saying, you try it! It was a series of challenges but we made it. She is a beautiful, compassionate, loving child who often gets compliments when in public of how polite and curtious she is.

One other thing I want to mention which someone shared with me and it works great to get to know the child. Each night when I tuck her in, we do the "Best Thing, Worst Thing" that happened to us that day. It really helps us to understand them and also to bond. She wasn't crazy about the idea, but I said there was no choice, so it began. We still do this every night ( for over 5 Years). It makes them feel special and important.

It won't be easy and I'm sure it will feel like months instead of only days, but if you are consistant with him and let him know he is loved, he will come around. Keep up the good work. If I think of any other tricks I used, I will email you. Feel free to email me if you have any questions. I think I have experienced pretty much everything with this child. Oh, and we did go through a therapy session for awhile. They were able to teach her coping skills for numerous feelings they have and how to handle situations. That could be an option too. Take whatever help is available to you as a foster parent and more. Tell them what you need and make sure they get him the help he needs. He's not too old to be helped. They never are.
Good Luck.



answers from Boston on

I was going to say, "use 1-2-3- Magic", but then I read at the very end that you do! So, I think I'd just keep sticking with it-and him! I think you're right that he's testing. Once he gets the consistency, and that you mean what you say, and that he'll be safe here because there ARE rules and consequences, he should settle down. Three weeks isn't a very long time considering his age. I'm sure it feels like forever. Sounds like you're got a great, loving approach. See if you can stick with it for a while longer.



answers from Boston on

I just gave this advice to another mom on the site, make sure he naps! What you need to do is start playing some quiet lullaby music and rub his back so he can feel comfortable with you and it will help him learn to calm/wind down so he can recharge his little batteries.

You might want to find a hot button of his and use that to your advantage. Doe he love certain TV shows? You could make him earn his right to a show. I would look to see what kind of DVD's are out there on manners, etc. It's terrible to say but Educational TV with a message may help him and you can keep that point in the forefront. This is such a tough call because he could have some under lying "mental" issues and I would cut out some of the sugar and Dye Red 40 from his diet. They can become stimulant which may make him crazy!

The poor kid must be so angry, I would encourage him to talk about his feelings .. aka use your words. I feel bad, I can see your point of not wanting to give up because he has been through so much .. you might want to contact someone to find out if he has any other medical history that you don't know about.

Good luck.



answers from Boston on

I as many do give you and your partner a lot of credit. My husband and I have two adopted children from birth, so there is no wonder about what happened to them before we entered their lives. I agree with the mom who suggested school for him. You probably thought of this and maybe didn't want to many adjustments for him at once. Unfortunately, this may not be what you want to hear, you have to think of the safety of your other foster son. Depending, on what happened to him he may be a child who would benefit from being the only child in the house until his other issues are worked out. I hope everything works out for you and your family.



answers from Boston on

I commend you for being a foster parent. It is a hard job. The only thing I can add is check his diet. Keep a diary of what he is eating and when, and of his behavior and when. My oldest gets violent when he gets citrus while a friend gets violent when he has had dairy. It could be he has no diet issues and is just testing you. A good source is www.feingold.org. That is a program that removes all additives from the diet (that helped us too).

Another idea for a time out I remember my friend used when she was a nanny and the regular sit down time outs didn't work. She would have them stand in front of a blank wall about one of their feet long away from the wall. Then she would have them rest their head against the wall with the nose touching and no hands touching. She would start with a short time no matter on the age (like 30 sec or 1 minute) and increase it for each offense they did by small increments (like 15 sec or something). She found that it took a lot of concentration to stand like that and most of the time they didn't like doing it and behavior improved. It might not work, but since you are having success at time outs as far as him staying there, it might work. Some of my friend's kids' didn't think it was a challenge when she told them of it, but when they tried it out on their own decided it was enough of a punishment and was more effective than the sit down time out and decided they didn't want to have to do it.

Hope this helps!



answers from Hartford on


I suggest checking the website www.attachmentexperts.com. There is probably a very good chance that this little boy has some serious attachment issues. I suggest looking into techniques for children with those issues specifically.

Good luck!



answers from Boston on

Hi J.,
Good for you for taking the time and energy to love this little guy :) That is amazing. Try loveandlogic.com it is awesome and very powerful. It teaches personal responsibility and accountibility at a very early age and it also lets them learn by the natural consequenses of their actions. I dont know where you are located but a great facilitator for this program is located in Bedford MA and she does workshops all over...Her name is Mara Briere and her company is called Points to Ponder..website is [email protected]____.com (I think) good luck and hang in there and just remember that you are one of the only people that this little guy has and will make a difference in his life.



answers from Boston on

Wow.... I give you a lot of credit. The only thing I can say is that you can't allow his behavior to influence the younger child's (which it will unless he starts to understand his consequences). Do you think he might be better off as a single child placement? He is still so young as well. Take care and God bless!



answers from Boston on

As a DSS worker, my advice would be to work closely with the family member that he will be transitioning to in the summer. If he can see that everyone involved is supportive of this move it will help lessen any attachment issues around that move. It will also be good for him if this family member will be able to carry over with the ways in which you are addressing his behaviors, so that he has that consistency as well.
Good luck, our kids are not easy!



answers from Providence on

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!!!



answers from Portland on


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.


answers from Boston on

You are to be commended for taking on foster children who have had so much disruption and trauma in their lives. Obviously you understand the issues this child has. Structure doesn't come easily when there has been no history of it, that's for sure. One thing I've seen many parents try is responding to the injured child and ignoring the perpetrator. The four year old is getting plenty of attention by being violent - even negative attention is craved by kids who haven't had any attention at all. If you separate the children but take care of the injured one, and then later try to give words to the 4 year old to explain his feelings rather than act out on them, that may help. The rest of it is time, unfortunately. Good luck.



answers from Providence on

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.



answers from Hartford on

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!



answers from Boston on

Hi J.,

I don't have any experience with foster care, but I am the mother of four, so I have a little experience with children. One thought kept running through my head as I read your story. Shouldn't this four year old be in some kind of preschool program during the day? Maybe he is bored or frustrated.

I know he hasn't been with you that long and unfortunately summer will soon be upon us, but if he was occupied in a more structured and stimulating environment during the day, it would give you a small break to spend nurturing time with the 2 year old and perhaps get a little housework or errands done and he being part of a group would learn little rules like taking turns, asking politely, manners etc. as well as get an educational head start which he will likely need.

If you had your days free, you could spend more needed nurtuting time with the two year old and maybe get a little housework or errands done and you would be less likely to get worn out from his behavior issues.

Otherwise I think you are doing all the right things. He probably feels insecure and is testing you just hold your ground be firm but loving in your limit setting and you will see remarkable changes.

This little guy probably has had a very challenging start and he must be very frightened and confused. Very small children really need to be attached to someone who loves them to grow up healthy; physically, emotionally and spiritually. I applaud your effort to help in this world a little bit for these little souls. May god bless you in your efforts.

J. L.



answers from Boston on

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!!

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