The phone rings. It’s 10:00 PM and a caseworker is asking you to open your home to a child in need. They share a little about their background and explain the urgency. There it is, that tug on your heart. Within the hour, a pair of small eyes are looking up at you and their few belongings sit on your doorstep in a black garbage bag. You’ve taken the classes and you’ve watched the videos. Maybe you’ve even taken a placement or two before, but each case is different and no child is the same. Parenting is tough, but being a foster parent is tougher.
I’ve worked with many foster parents over the years and am a foster parent myself. The phrase I hear most often from foster parents is, “I don’t know how to help.” If you are a foster parent, chances are that you’ve felt this way too.
Maybe it’s a fear that keeps the child from being able to sleep soundly. Perhaps it is the unbearable attitude and you can’t handle another cuss word hurled straight at your heart. Maybe it’s a sadness that brings tears and questions that can’t be answered. Or maybe lying, sneaking, or stealing has wrecked havoc on relationships in your family. At times, perhaps you question why you made this decision to become a foster parent in the first place.
As foster parents you appear to be managing behaviors, but in reality you are managing traumas. Kids often don’t know how to communicate their experiences. They do not know how to explain the survival strategies that have become normal for them, but are so obviously wrong in this new home. It can be exhausting to navigate.
If you are not sure where to start, here are a few tips to help address the heart behind the behavior, to support in a way that creates change, and builds lasting impact in place of trauma.
Allow the emotion.
Kids who have been through trauma need to get their emotions out. Of course they need to do this safely, but it needs to be allowed. A helpful phrase is “It is okay to feel. I know you are hurting. This is a safe place to get your hurt out, but we cannot hurt others or hurt things.” Provide a pillow, a giant stuffed animal, or a cozy bed. By using replacement objects, the child is still able to let out punches and kicks without damage to walls and doors.
Label the emotion.
Teaching children to identify feelings can help them develop understanding of their inner world. Dr. Dan Siegal, author of The Whole Brain Child states that when we name it we can tame it. This evidenced-based practice proves that labeling emotions is a first step in supporting a child in recovering from them. When we label the emotion we move a child from the triggered emotional center of the brain to the reasoning and thinking center. This creates less reactivity and more problem solving in the midst of big feelings.
See beyond the behavior.
This can be one of the best ways to heal trauma in kids, but it can also be the hardest. When adults are triggered by the behaviors we see this can be a time where it is hardest to show empathy or to go deeper. I challenge you to do so anyway.
Create magical moments. When you begin to build bridges in places where a child is used to walls, something amazing happens. Talk to your child. You could say, “I can see you are sad/scared/worried/hurt and that makes you want to (fill in the behavior). How can I help support you right now because I want you to feel loved. You deserved to feel loved. I know this is hard for you,” Affirming words put anyone at ease.
This is a time for pulling a child in and providing the nurturing often missed in infancy. For young children rocking, patting a back, bouncing on your lap, or playing together can help. If the child is older you can watch a movie, play a sport, do a craft, or tell them something you love about them. Increasing warmth and connection where a child fears disconnection can create new connections in the brain. You are helping their brain rewiring itself to know that healthy relationships with loved ones are possible.
Share your experiences.
As parents it is important not to make a child’s experiences about you. Remember, a child’s behavior is not directed at you, it’s directed at the trauma they have experienced. Also, sharing stories with your child is not about giving you the spotlight. You need time to share your feelings and experiences too — they are part of self care. But share your thoughts and frustrations with your circle of support, not with your child.
When you share experiences with a child, the goal is to help a child feel less alone. Often, a foster child has developed false beliefs about themselves like, “No one understands. No one is as bad as me. Nobody has done what I have done. No one has been through what I have been though.” The more that a foster parent can heal these beliefs by making them feel normal, the more a child can begin to re-frame their negative thoughts while increasing self-esteem.
Stick to boundaries.
Kids in foster care need stability, consistency, and firm boundaries. Love is listening and understanding, but it’s also holding a child accountable and empowering them in their ability to succeed. Enforce boundaries with your child and your child will, in time, learn to respect them.
As you hold a child’s feelings remember to also hold them responsible for repair. The assignment still needs to be completed. The apology needs to be made. The mess needs to be picked up. Whatever it is, keep the expectation. Then, when completed, enhance validation and praise.
Be kind to yourself.
Remember, your foster child has experienced trauma and as a foster parent you take that on too. If you are in need of extra support, please feel free to reach out.
The work you do is not for the faint of heart. You are a gift to each child who is in your care. Be kind to yourself, be patient with yourself, and know that the word is a better place because of how you are serving in it.
In parting, I share a quote from our child hood friend, Mr. Rogers, “I hope you are proud of yourself for the times you’ve said ‘yes’ when all it meant was extra work for you and was seemingly only helpful to someone else.”
Thank you for picking up the phone and saying ‘yes.’ Your dedication to serve as a foster parent is transforming lives.