Friendship Challenges in Foster and Adoptive Children

Post 1 in a 4 part series

In this post, we will answer the question, “Why do some foster and adoptive children struggle with friendships?”

In my work with adopted children and families, I have seen many adoptive and foster children struggle with friendships. Sometimes it can be hard for them to make friends. They often feel left out, lonely, or rejected and have a hard time fitting in with groups. At other times, the child or teen does not make healthy choices in friendships and can get themselves into dangerous situations. Some children may change friends often or not have many close friends.

Parents often feel worried but do not know exactly how to help their child. Besides providing opportunities for their child to make friends, encouraging them, and praying for them, what can parents do to help?

I have decided to write a series of blog posts for parents to understand the root causes of the issue, give practical tips and suggestions, and discuss how they, as parents, can model healthy friendships.

Part 1 of this series discusses the underlying challenges that children have in making friends. Part 2 in this blog series will discuss how to help children overcome the underlying challenges. Part 3 will give practical tips on how to make friends. Part 4 will discuss how parents can make and model healthy friendships for their child.

Core Issues

Brain wiring, personality, attachment styles, and relational trauma are often the primary cause of friendship issues in children.

Brain wiring and personality – Some children are born with sensitive nervous systems and overactive or underactive areas of the brain. They may easily get overstimulated, be hyperactive, impulsive, ruminate, be fearful, automatically say no, have sensory issues, or be less flexible in their approach to life. In addition to being born with areas of the brain that do not have efficient wiring, trauma changes the way the brain is organized and reacts to stimuli.

Attachment – Very early in our life we develop ways that we relate to our primary caregivers. These ways of relating are called attachment styles. They become imprinted in our minds and form patterns of how we interact with others as we grow older. In children, these patterns are classified as secure, anxious, avoidant, or disorganized. Each style has its own characteristics that can cause struggles with friendships.

Relational trauma – Trauma is defined as something that overwhelms a person’s ability to cope. Trauma that takes place in the context of interpersonal relationships is harmful and has lifelong consequences. In relational trauma, the closer the
relationship, the more traumatic the violation and the more impact on the individual.

Secondary Issues

It is often difficult to determine which friendship challenges are core issues and which are secondary to the core. Listed below are 10 areas that are often directly related to the primary challenges listed above.

  1. Fear of rejection – Children who have been adopted are no longer living with their original parents and often fear rejection. Whether they were placed into the loving arms of adoptive parents or abandoned, abused, or neglected, many adopted children have lifelong fears revolving around rejection because they were separated from their birth parents.
  2. Anxiety – Many children struggle with anxiety and feel nervous around people, especially groups. The fear and worry can cause their brain and body to go into fight or flight which leads to a host of challenges.
  3. Self-disclosure – Because some adopted or foster children are shy, more private, prefer listening to talking, or have fear, they do not share much about themselves. Their ideas, opinions, preferences, or what is going on in their life is kept hidden. Alternately, some children may be very talkative and outgoing which leads to over-sharing even deep and personal information.
  4. Flexibility – Some children have a fixed mindset and do not think as flexibly as others. They frequently say ‘no’ to new ideas and options. When playing, they insist on things being done a certain way.
  5. Empathy – Some children are more task-focused and have not fully developed their empathy. They do not put themselves in others’ shoes and focus more on the task at hand than what the other person is feeling or thinking.
  6. Self-reflection – Understanding who you are, what your values are, and why you think and act the way you do comes through self-reflection. It also includes taking time to reflect upon how you behave and what thoughts you have in response to events in the world. Being self-reflective allows you to see where you need to adjust and what you need to work on. Some children have not developed their self-reflective capabilities.
  7. Emotional expression – Our emotions communicate and influence others. Children may not recognize how they are communicating to others through their body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice. Their words, actions, or body language may not be congruent and this can be confusing for others.
  8. Values and judgments – Everyone has different values and judgments that they make. Focusing more on facts, values, and judging others rather than prioritizing the connections and ways we are similar can cause children problems in getting along with others.
  9. Triggers – Certain personality types or physical features may remind children of people from their past who hurt them and cause them to avoid, exclude, or make judgments about these people.
  10. Boundaries – Children who have not had healthy boundaries modeled for them often do not understand clearly where the lines are between them and others. They may get too close or merge emotionally or overextend themselves for their friend.

As you can see, the underlying friendship issues caused by brain wiring, personality, attachment, and trauma are many and sometimes difficult to identify. This is not an exhaustive list but a place to start thinking about friendship challenges. If your child is having difficulty making friends, be sure to read part two of this series for how to address these deficits.

A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for a time of adversity. Proverbs 17:17

Renee is a life coach who specializes in working with foster and adoptive families. She is based in Louisville, Kentucky, but she works with clients all over the world through internet coaching. You can book a free 30-minute consultation with her here: or find out more information about her services at

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