How to Help a Foster or Adoptive Child with Anxiety

A Cat helps a foster parent understand anxiety in Virginia

Foster Children and How to Help Them With Anxiety in a New Home

Ranch Relates to Why Anxiety is Healthy...It Keeps You Safe But in Time You Heal.

Hypervigilance does not reciprocate affection, is slow to trust, and is sensitive to loud noises and sudden movements- these are all traits I have seen in foster youth I have worked with in the foster care system. Still, I am not writing about a child. I am writing about an orange tabby cat, affectionately named by my daughter. Ranch, who began coming around the backyard of our house in December 2018, displayed all of those traits when he first approached us. More specifically, I am writing about the lessons we have learned in attempts to connect with Ranch and how those lessons could benefit foster parents and their children who may display anxiety symptoms at first. 

A cat helps a foster parent understand anxiety

My wife and I are animal suckers. It is as if we have a beacon on our house beckoning cats and dogs to come to our yard for food, water, and, in some cases, love. We have one dog and four cats in our house that all showed up unannounced but were very quick to warm up to our family. Ranch, however, was another story. He began sneaking around our backyard before a cold snap involving winter precipitation. Of course, our family immediately began providing food and water. Still, Ranch would sprint away immediately when we opened the back door to approach him, even though we desperately wanted to meet more than his basic needs. We tried to pet him and soothe the anxieties that he had developed over time. Maybe anxiety is the wrong word, as those behaviors had successfully kept him relatively safe and were more aligned to attempts to survive. Because of the winter weather, we fashioned a shelter lined with hay under cover of our back stoop that, to this day, he rejected and has never used. 

Over some time, Ranch would not sprint away from us but was still very timid and would not allow us to touch him. As a result, my wife and I always approached him slowly, cautiously, speaking in calm, soothing tones. We used this approach consistently until, on the night of Valentine’s Day, Ranch allowed my wife to pet him ever so slightly. Using patience and going at a comfortable pace, Ranch gradually became more receptive to human touch, though it was not something he actively sought. There were unwritten rules about petting him. It could only occur on the back stoop, not on the back porch or in the backyard, and the person petting him had to do this from a standing position. Ranch would bolt if you attempted to sit and pet him. In this period, he would disappear for multiple days at a time only to show up when you least expected him.

My wife, myself, and the kids continued our attempts to acclimate him to human touch while trying to operate at a pace he was comfortable with using the previously stated techniques. It is now December 2019, and Ranch continues to increase his comfort level with our family. He tends to greet me at the backdoor every morning and soon after I return from work. The ranch now seems to be seeking human contact and taking pleasure in this, as evidenced by his loud purrs, which were not heard or felt for the first several months of his visitations. Ranch will rub himself against us now and lie next to us if sitting on the stoop, often kneading against a leg with his front paws. He allows us to pet him on the back patio and, to a lesser degree, in the backyard. Ranch can still have moments where he startles easily and can be standoffish. Still, he has become much more comfortable with our family over the past year!

So, back to the statement relating this process to foster parenting. Many of our youth are notably slow to warm to their foster families, regardless of the shelter they provide, the food that they give, and their attempts to connect emotionally. While not initially realizing we were implementing trauma-informed parenting techniques, I do feel that our approaches made the connection with Ranch successful and had some relativity to said techniques. This came through patience, tempering our expectations by meeting him at his comfort level, consistency, considering how to present behaviors linked to ways he had used to survive, not giving up on him when early affection was not reciprocated, spending significant time observing rather than judging, maintaining a calm demeanor, recognizing that all animals are different and require flexible approaches and a focus on connection. While there is no magic elixir to elicit connection, I believe these approaches apply to providing support for youth in foster care and producing successful results. 

Ranch seems torn between coming inside and maintaining his status as an outside cat. We would much rather have him join our zoo, thus protecting him from speeding cars and predators. Still, we are content to follow his lead and wait until he is truly ready to come inside. 

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