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Longitudinal research in parenting stress and behavioural problems in foster care


Background. For children in need of out-of-home care, foster care often constitutes the option of choice. These children grew up in difficult situations: they were neglected, lost a carer etc. Many foster children have behavioural problems.
These problems are considered to be due to the parenting practices of their biological parents. Foster care placements frequently terminate prematurely and unintentionally because of behavioural problems. Behavioural problems can lead to high levels of parenting stress. In turn, parenting stress can result in ineffective parenting by the foster parents. Ineffective parenting is associated with behavioural problems by which the circle is closed.
Little is known about the evolution of parenting stress in foster families and the evolution of behavioural and emotional problems in foster children. The model presented above predicts an increase of parenting stress and behavioural problems when children with behavioural problems are placed into foster care.

Purpose. To present the results of a longitudinal study (two years) into the evolution of parenting stress in foster families and the evolution of behavioural and emotional problems in foster children.

Methods. Seventy-seven mothers (of 96 or response rate = 80%) participated in the first data collection wave (T1). Forty-nine mothers (of 65 or response rate = 75%) participated in the second data collection wave two years later (T2). Twelve foster care placements had already ended (8 breakdowns and 4 planned reunifications). The mothers were two times questioned with two questionnaires:

  • the Nijmegen Questionnaire for the Parenting Situation (Wels & Robbroeckx, 1996) is used to measure the subjective family stress;
  • the CBCL/6-18 is used to measure the emotional and behavioural problems of the foster children. We make use of the Total, the Internalising and the Externalising Problem Scores.

Key findings. Over a period of two years the mean Externalising Problem Score and the mean Total Problem Score of the foster children significantly increase. Moreover, the percentage of children with a clinical Externalising Problem Score and a clinical Total Problem Score increases significantly (clinical Externalising Problem Score: from 16% to 30%; clinical Total Problem Score: from 12% to 20%). The Internalising, the Externalising and the Total Problem Scores on T1 and T2 correlate significantly (respectively r = 0.65; p < 0.01; r = 0.76; p < 0.01 en r = 0.79; p < 0.01). Children already behaving problematic on the first measurement moment behave even more problematic after two years. Contrary to our expectations, the level of family stress stays stable over two years.
The levels of family stress on the two measuring moments are significantly correlated (r = 0.72; p < 0.01). In a regression analysis, parenting stress after two years is predicted by the foster family type (more stress in the case of two parent family compared to a single foster mother), the initial level of parenting stress and the behavioural problems (externalising and internalising) of the foster child.
Other variables such as the age of the foster mother, the number of children in the foster family, the age of the foster child and kinship versus non-kinship care are not associated with the parenting stress experienced by the foster mothers.

Implications and recommendations. Foster care is part of the child welfare system that aims at helping children. Foster care should lead to new opportunities for the foster child and a healthier development in their foster family. However, this study finds that foster families insufficiently help children manage their (externalising) behavioural problems. After two years foster mothers report more externalising problem behaviour. The question for which kind of problems foster care can be opted needs to be addressed. The placement of children in foster care seems not always to be in the best interest of the foster child and his family.
Clear criteria that preferably are the same for all social workers are needed. At the same time this study underscores the need to provide services to children and youths to address behavioural problems before placement into "traditional" foster care and to continue this treatment during the placement. If the former is not possible behavioural problems should be assessed at start of the placement. During the placement foster parents need support in managing the behavioural problems of the foster children with a view to prevent breakdown or ineffective parenting.

Key references
Wels, P.M.A., & Robbroeckx, L.M.H. (1996). Nijmeegse Vragenlijst voor de Opvoedingssituatie. Handleiding. (Nijmegen Questionnaire for the Parenting Situation. Handbook). Lisse: Swets & Zeitlinger.

Contacts: Johan Vanderfaeillie, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences, Department of Orthopsychology, Pleinlaan 2, 1050 Brussels, Belgium, E-mail: johan.vanderfaeillie@vub.ac.be, Phone 0032 2 629 32 56.

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