Dear Dena,
I have parented bio kids and now foster/adopt kids. My question is this: I know it’s normal for toddlers to test boundaries and to try and push limits, but I’m finding myself overwhelmed by how much my foster son does this! Way more than my bio kids. Maybe it’s just temperament, but it feels like something else is going on.



Dear Pushed,

You are not alone in feeling like foster/adopt kiddos have what seem like “normal” kid behaviors on steroids! Our kids generally come to us from hard places, even in the best of situations. Their boundaries have often been violated or ignored, and they rarely have had ideal models of appropriate limits. In other words, they have no skills in this area!

Additionally, many of our children have some additional sensory integration struggles and/or drug and alcohol exposure. These physical realities are limitations on their ability to manage impulses well and to discern where he/she ends and where others begin.

As a parent, you get to be their external sense of boundaries. You get to model and reinforce appropriate limits and behaviors and you get to celebrate when they succeed and redirect when they fail. It can be exhausting, but to be frank, the alternative is more exhausting. Your ability to be consistent and structured now will absolutely pay off in the long run. But it does mean arranging your days with clear expectations and consistent schedules.

Playful redirection is your best friend in the moments of boundary testing. Be careful not to give too much emotional energy to misbehaviors because our kids thrive on the energy and attention, even negative attention. Additionally, ignoring can be a hard but helpful response. And while that does not mean “letting kids get away with murder” it does mean very carefully choosing your battles and then being consistent and firm. Boundary pushing is a perfect scenario for practicing “re-do’s” and letting kids playfully do it wrong then do it right.

This is not traditional parenting, this is trauma-informed parenting. I have found the hardest part about trauma-informed parenting is wrapping my own brain around the idea that this isn’t permissive, it’s practical. Standard discipline doesn’t work with our kiddos and if we keep using standard tools on non-standard kids it can lead to despair, depression, and even violence. This is a long, hard, haul and we need to be smart about how we use the tools available to us.


-Dena Johnson MA, LMHC

Licensed Mental Health Counselor, Attachment-Trauma Focused Therapist, TBRI Practitioner