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Most common causes of stress for children in foster care

While every child’s history and circumstances will be unique to them, there are some common causes of stress that most looked-after children are likely to experience.

June 2 2023 - 4 min read

Foster care can be a challenging time for children and young people. When they’re placed in foster care, they’re often dealing with the trauma of being removed from their families and familiar surroundings, leaving them with feelings of fear, confusion, and anxiety. The sudden change of living arrangements, lack of stability, and uncertainty about the future can all contribute to stress and anxiety. Plus, they could also be entering adolescence, which comes with bodily changes, heightened emotions and self-exploration. All of this can be tricky to navigate at the best of times, but for those in foster care, it’s combined with trying to deal with their sense of loss and recovery from their pasts.

That’s why the work foster parents do is crucial in helping children deal with their worries, stress and anxiety so they can focus on a happier future. While every child’s history and circumstances will be unique to them, there are some common causes of stress that most looked-after children are likely to experience.

Separation from family

One of the most significant sources of stress for children and young people in foster care is separation from their families. Being removed from their homes and placed in a new environment can be traumatic and difficult to understand, especially for younger children. They may feel confused, sad, and scared about what is happening and why they cannot be with their families. This separation can lead to feelings of abandonment, which can cause long-term emotional distress. Additionally, children may worry about their parents and siblings and feel guilty about being away from them.

Children who are separated from their families are also at higher risk of developing mental health disorders, such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD. A study found that children who experienced separation from their families had a higher risk of developing behavioral and emotional problems, which can impact their social and academic functioning.

At Fostering People, we encourage and support contact with birth families throughout a child’s time in foster care, if it’s in their best interests, of course. This contact is a crucial part of maintaining a sense of stability and continuity for children, as well as helping to restore relationships and work towards reunification.

Changes in living arrangements

Foster care often involves multiple changes in living arrangements. Children and young people may be placed with different families, group homes, or institutions over time. Each move can be stressful, as they have to adapt to new surroundings, new rules, and new people. They may also have to leave behind friends, teachers, and other support systems, which can be hard to cope with.

The constant changes in living arrangements can impact the child's emotional well-being, including their sense of stability and security. Studies have found that children in foster care who experience frequent changes in living arrangements have more significant emotional and behavioral problems than those who experience fewer changes. Additionally, children who experience multiple placements may struggle to develop trust in their caregivers and develop healthy attachments.

This is why we work so hard to match young people with the right foster parents who can give them what they need. The better the match, the less likely the placement will end unexpectedly, which can lead to further stress and upheaval.

Lack of stability

Being placed into care can be unpredictable, and children and young people may not know what will happen next. They may worry about their future and where they will end up, especially if they have experienced multiple placements or disruptions in their care. The lack of stability can also affect their education, as they may have to change schools during important times and struggle to keep up with their studies.

The instability of foster care can lead to anxiety, depression, and feelings of hopelessness. Children may struggle to develop a sense of self-worth and may lack confidence in their abilities. Additionally, the lack of stability can impact their social skills, making it challenging to form healthy relationships with peers and adults.

Trauma and abuse

Many children and young people in foster care have experienced trauma and abuse before entering care. This trauma can cause lasting emotional and psychological damage, which may manifest as stress, anxiety, and depression. Children may also struggle with trust issues and have difficulty forming attachments to caregivers.

Children who have experienced trauma and abuse may also exhibit challenging behaviors, such as aggression, defiance, and withdrawal. These behaviors can be a source of stress for both the child and their caregiver, so it’s important they both receive vital support whenever they need it. At Fostering People, we are an ACEs (adverse childhood experiences) aware organisation, and take a therapeutic approach to fostering. This means we understand the issues these young people are facing, and take them into account in the way we work. With the support and guidance of other childcare professionals, our foster parents can feel empowered to tackle these challenges and reduce – or remove – the impact of past trauma.


There are a number of reasons why school can be a source of stress for kids in foster care. The disruption they’ve had in their home life can follow through and affect their studies, putting them behind their classmates academically. Moving schools during term time can also disturb the flow of learning, especially if the curriculum is different.

Another reason why school can be stressful is due to bullying. As much as we want to eradicate bullying from the playground, we need to accept the fact it happens, and children growing up in the care system are sadly easy targets for bullies. Their past trauma can make them naturally more vulnerable or shy, which bullies will use to pick on them. Also, if they were the victim of neglect, they may have experienced a lot of bullying prior to joining a loving foster home, where bullies may have teased their appearance, hygiene or clothes.

School should be a safe place where young people can learn, grow, discover their interests and make important friendships. At Fostering People, education is extremely important to us, and we have support for foster children to ensure they get the most out of school. Our Education Coordinator ensures we have a full picture of our children's academic records, and we’re always in regular contact with schools and colleges.

Social isolation

Children and young people in foster care may feel socially isolated from their peers due to mental health issues or other complex needs that means they distance themselves from others. It could be a case of not wanting to get close to someone out of fear they’re going to lose them, which is a common defense mechanism we use to protect ourselves from further hurt. If they’re suffering from depression, they might withdraw from social situations too.

Social isolation can impact a child's sense of belonging and self-worth. Children may feel like they do not fit in or that they are different from their peers, leading to feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem. Additionally, social isolation can impact their ability to form healthy relationships and may lead to challenges in their social and emotional development.

That’s why they need a loving, stable, nurturing foster home to help them work through their struggles. These children deserve to have a happy childhood filled with laughter, joy and positive memories, so that’s what we strive towards here at Fostering People. All of our foster parents receive professional training to help them provide the best care possible to vulnerable children and get their lives back onto a positive track.

It is crucial to recognise that children and young people in foster care are resilient and can overcome challenges with the right support and care. By addressing the common causes of stress in foster care, we can ensure that children and young people in care have the opportunity to lead happy and fulfilling lives.

If you’d like to know more about how to become a foster parent and what’s involved, please get in touch with our friendly team today. You could help transform the lives of vulnerable children in your community. 

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