Foster Parenting Tips for Navigating a Mental Health Crisis
How to help foster children with a mental health crisis
A guide for helping kids who are in a mental health crisis
Foster parenting can be a challenge. Finding tips to Help Navigate a Mental Health crisis beforehand can be very beneficial to yourself and to ensure your foster or adoptive child's welfare. When fostering a child with significant mental health needs, it is not uncommon for behaviors to escalate to crisis from time to time.
A crisis can be considered any situation that involves the child putting themselves or others at risk that the parent cannot resolve. Foster parents must create a crisis management or crisis care plan for children with mental health issues entering their foster homes.
A mental health crisis can result from any number of stressors or changes. Some common triggers include changes in the environment, bullying, substance use, loss, strained relationships, school stress, missed medication, new medication, and pending court dates. Sometimes the crisis can be anticipated by noticeable changes in behavior, such as moodiness, withdrawal, and lack of self-care. However, in some cases, the problem can come from seemingly nowhere.
Understanding basic De-Escalation techniques is essential for foster families responding to behavioral disruption. Children often struggle to communicate and regulate their thoughts and feelings, particularly children who have come from hard places. Ensuring that you remain as calm and present as possible is essential.
Some basic de-escalation techniques include keeping a calm voice, listening to your child, avoiding arguing or reasoning with your child, and asking how you can help them. As you express empathy, create a calm environment, offer choices, and announce what you will do before you do it. Give them space and avoid touch unless granted permission.
If you cannot de-escalate the situation, additional help should be sought by calling a crisis line or reaching out to other supports on your crisis management team or your foster care treatment team members like social workers or your child's court-appointed special advocate.
Safety is always the number one priority, and if you do not feel that you can keep yourself or the child safe, you must reach out for support. Calling 911 and asking for law enforcement assistance is warranted in extreme cases where you feel your safety or your foster child's safety is in danger. Make sure you do a risk assessment before calling 911. While it can be an essential tool to keep you and your foster child safe, it should not always be the first option you pursue.
However, when you call 911, it is vital to communicate that you have a crisis involving a child with mental illness. Providing as much information as possible will help law enforcement determine the support needed. When there is a mental health crisis, law enforcement will often reach out to the county mental health crisis teams to help them de-escalate the situation. The crisis team will often assist law enforcement in evaluating the situation and determining necessary actions, considering the child's condition.
Ultimately, the best practice for addressing a crisis is preventative. Preventative strategies will always be a parent's best tool for addressing behavioral issues before they escalate to the point of no return.
Knowing, understanding, and empathizing with your child's needs and concerns will create increased safety feelings. When children feel that their feelings and needs are understood and validated, they are much less likely to lose their sense of control. Mental health crises often arise from feeling out of control or overwhelmed. Any parent who can help their child feel safe, calm, and secure will help them manage themselves considerably.
Children from hard places often lack necessary executive functioning skills such as decision-making, self-regulation, and breaking down a task into its components. When parents respond in a calm, regulated tone, present choices, and help the child break down a problem they are facing, they are, in a sense loaning their executive functioning brain to the child. This not only helps the child regulate and manage a frustrating situation, but it also helps them build this functioning within themselves.
Avoiding a mental health crisis may not always be possible, but maintaining the relationship after disruptive behaviors occur is essential for healing and repatterning attachment issues. Children in the foster care system typically do not have a strong foundation for loving and caring relationships. Their behaviors are often manifestations of severe trauma, scarcity of supportive relationships, and feelings of being out of control.
The healing can begin when parents can meet the child where they are, empathize and create a supportive environment specific to that child's needs. Holding the child accountable for their actions is essential when a behavioral crisis occurs. Still, expressing support and ensuring that the child knows you love them and see them beyond those behaviors is critical. This orientation to the child helps them learn that their choices matter, but their struggles do not make them unworthy of love and acceptance.
One way to demonstrate this could include debriefing what occurred with the child after they are calm and receptive, discussing what was not okay about how they responded, and offering choices for how to respond next time. Take the time to explore the unaddressed needs or concerns that led up to their behaviors.
Crisis prevention is a multi-dimensional skill that involves attunement to your child, awareness of their emotional triggers, and a willingness to slow down and attend to signals of concern or need. However, even the most attuned parent may suddenly find themselves with a child in crisis.
In these cases, having a crisis action plan/ a crisis management plan ready to engage is essential. Sometimes, this may be a call to a crisis helpline or crisis services, such as your agency's on-call worker or your child's crisis counselor. In some cases, where the threat of harm to self or others is imminent, calling 911 and indicating a mental health crisis involving a child may be the best action.