Keeping Things in Perspective as a Foster Parent

How can I make up for all of the pain this child has suffered?

Am I really the right person to do this?

Can I stick with this child over the long run and give her the stability and security that she needs?

These questions come up for almost every foster parent at some point in their fostering journey.

Obviously, there are no easy answers to these questions.

But there are some things to keep in mind.

Remember that no one can undo what happened to your foster child in the past. But you can offer a variety of corrective experiences which will help her heal and grow.

These experiences happen mostly within the context of your normal family life. Being safe and cared for in a loving home does wonders for kids who have experienced trauma. The everyday predictable routines of getting ready for school, meal times and hanging out with family give children a sense of security. As they feel more secure, they can begin to develop trusting relationships with the people around them.

woman-538396_1280If you’re caring for them, you are the right person to do it. If you can provide the safety of a strong family, you have what it takes to parent your foster child. Like all children, your foster child has the simple human need for things like for love, consistency, discipline and guidance. And those are things that you can provide.

It may be that your foster child has some special needs that you and your family can’t meet without outside support. The social worker from your foster care agency should work with you to help address those needs. That is the promise your foster care agency makes to you when you take the extraordinary step of fostering a child.

Sticking with your foster child through her inevitable ups and downs will show her the unconditional commitment that is the foundation for healthy human development. When foster children begin to believe they are secure in their home and family, they can let go of some of the pain which has made life so difficult for them and, sometimes, difficult for those who care for them. The young person who came into your home with so many fears and reservations can begin to relax and start to become a happier and more confident person.

Hanging in there with your foster child isn’t always easy. But rest assured, you are helping her move past the pain. You are the right person. And chances are, you can stick with her. 

Foster Parenting at the Holidays

christmas-tree-1110949_1280That period of time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day is both exciting and hectic for most families. In a period of a little more than a month we may attend many social gatherings and indulge in a variety of seasonal pleasures.

This time can also be overwhelming for children, and particular for foster children. For young people in foster care, the holidays can stir up some difficult memories and conflicted feelings. There are things you can do to make it easier for them.

Try to include some of her favorite things: Ask your foster youth if there is a special food that she would like as part of a holiday meal and ask her to help you prepare it. Try to include rituals that are important to her in your celebration. Help her talk about her previous holidays and the people she celebrated with.

Anticipate mixed feelings: For many foster children the holidays stir up feelings of sadness and grief. It may be a time when she misses or worries about members of her birth family and previous caretakers. Acknowledge her mixed feelings and help her talk about her worries. Let her know that you understand that sometimes she may need a break from all of the festivities. Ask her what would help her when she is feeling out of sorts. To the extent possible support her contact with birth family members and other important people in her life.

Prepare her for meeting new people: At the holidays we sometimes see people that we rarely see at other times of year. Chances are, these people will be new to your foster child. She may be anxious about meeting new people and sharing her story. Remind her that she is not obligated to share her story. And ask her how she would like you to introduce her. Give her some options to choose from, like foster child or friend. Make sure that she knows who is coming and what their connection is to your family.

Gifts can be a mixed blessing: Like every child, your foster child will look forward to getting gifts and, if asked, will probably have a long list of what she wants. Remember that if her previous holidays have been sparse, she may find a large number of presents overwhelming. She may feel guilty about having gifts when she fears that her siblings may be doing without. Ask her what previous holidays have been like for her. Let her tell you about a special gift she received in the past. Try to keep the focus of celebration less on gifts and more on sharing time with others.

Create new memories:  The holidays will create memories your foster child will always have. Help her participate in meaningful rituals at your place of worship or in your community. If you volunteer to help others, find a way for her to participate. If you have a Christmas tree, let her make a special ornament with her name on it. And when the holidays are over, let her see you pack it away and let her know that you will treasure it forever.

Most of all, be there for her this holiday season as she tries to navigate the many feelings that will inevitably arrive. Your caring time and attention is the best gift you can give her, at the holidays and throughout the year.

Successful Foster Parenting: A Thousand Little Steps

step-by-stepYou’ve decided to become a foster parent, are licensed and trained, and have welcomed your first child into your home. A few months pass and friends and family start asking “how’s it going?” You respond with a brief “fine” or “every day is an adventure.” But later, when you ask yourself the same question, you struggle to find the right answer.

Foster parenting has been different than you expected it to be. When your foster child came to live with you, you were told to keep your expectations in check. And you’ve tried to do that. But sometimes it seems hard to identify whether your child (or you) have made any progress at all.  This may be the time to take stock of all you’ve accomplished. If your foster child has been safe, warm, fed and rested in your home, that’s progress. If he is attending school regularly, that’s progress. If melt downs are happening with less intensity and frequency, that’s progress. If he or she is beginning to make more eye contact with you and other family members, that’s progress too.

Measure your own growth as a foster parent in equally small steps.  If you’re getting better at predicting what “sets off” your child, that’s progress. If you’ve found ways to help redirect some of his anger in ways that work better for him and those around him, that’s progress. Without even noticing, you may have modified some of your daily routines so that your foster child feels more a part of your family life.  That’s progress.

Settling into in a new home and family is a huge task for any child. And, integrating a new person into your home and family is also a huge task. Give yourself credit for the things that are going well. Remember that every little step you and your foster child take together brings him closer to the safety and stability he deserves and you want for him.

So, when you ask yourself “how’s it going?”, keep in mind that success as a foster parent is best measured in small increments that may seem insignificant now, but that in the long run, will matter profoundly for you and your foster child.

The Foster Parent’s Mantra: It’s Not Personal

man-517200_1280A mantra is a word or phrase that is repeated often and expresses someone’s basic beliefs. It can help you keep your wits about you when life is especially challenging.

For many foster parents, “it’s not personal” is an important mantra.

People become foster parents because they want to help kids. So it can be really hard when a foster child resists your offers of support and caring, or maybe challenges your authority and breaks all your rules.  In fact, their response may be so strong and so consistent that you think you must be doing something terribly wrong.  Well, chances are, you’re not.

There can be many explanations for why your foster child is struggling in your home. More likely than not, it has to do with his previous life experiences. Maybe in past situations he was mistreated or rejected. Maybe she’s been moved multiple times, always experiencing abrupt ends to relationships that she was trying to build.  Maybe he assumes all the same things are going to happen again sooner or later.

It can take a long time before you understand what is behind the puzzling behavior.  In the meantime, the “it’s not personal” mantra might help.  Internalizing this belief can protect you from feelings of failure and help you persist in your efforts to bond with your child regardless of how difficult his current behavior may be.

Most foster kids eventually respond to the care and love provided by their foster parents. But getting there can be long and difficult. As you go through the day to day steps of building a trusting relationship, try to remember that your foster youth’s struggles generally are not about you. And repeat three times, “it’s not personal, it’s not personal and it’s not personal.”

Difficult Conversations with Your Foster Child: Take Me for a Ride

One of the challenges of being a foster parent can be having conversations about difficult or sensitive topics. On one hand, as a foster parent you are aware that the child in your care has been through painful experiences and you want him or her to feel comfortable  talking with you about their worries and concerns. On the other hand, you may fear that your bringing up sensitive topics will be traumatic for your child and, perhaps, stir up memories or feelings which you may not be able to handle.

As with other foster parenting issues there is no simple formula for knowing just when or how to have those difficult conversations. There are, however, some simple guidelines which may help you navigate this challenging part of your role as a foster parent. Keep in mind that there will be many opportunities to talk. No single conversation will make or break your communication with your foster child.

driving-918950_1280Take advantage of opportunities for conversation which occur naturally. Many children, including those in foster care, find it much easier to talk with an adult when they are riding in a car with them. There is something about the contained space of a car that can create a very safe space for talking. Riding in a car limits most direct eye contact. (You do have to keep your eyes on the road!) The lack of direct eye contact can make it easier for a child to bring up and discuss sensitive issues. This is true for teenagers as well as for younger children.

Being a careful listener will help you respond to a child who is opening up to you. As your child starts to talk about a sensitive issue try not to jump right in and “make everything better” as tempting as that might be. It may be more helpful for you to listen for a bit and then respond with empathy (“I’m so sorry you had to go through that”) or an open ended question (“what was that like for you? ”). Also, try to allow for some periods of silence as your child processes information. Foster children need to know that their life stories can be heard and respected by caring adults who will not turn away from them when they disclose the painful things that have happened to them in the past and their worries about the future.

Your being able to welcome a child or youth’s opening up to you in a calm and interested manner will show the child that it is safe to let others help with problems. Take time later to process your reactions to what you hear with another trusted adult such as your spouse or Plummer social worker. In the moment, try to stay focused on the child and let him know that you are glad to be able to talk about what is important to him or her. And take note yourself that even the most innocuous activities like driving to the store to pick up a gallon of milk can provide an opportunity for intimacy and trust building.

Foster Parenting Challenges: Responding to Self-Defeating Behaviors

crying girlChildren and youth in foster care sometimes seem unable to accept the positive things that are happening in their lives. An adolescent who has been looking forward to a class trip he has earned, may “lose it” it at school on the morning of the activity and have to stay behind. Or, a younger child receives a toy he has longed for and then breaks it when it is barely out of the package. It’s hard for foster parents to know how best to respond to these self-defeating and self-destructive behaviors.

So think about that “invisible suitcase” we talked about in the last blog post. That suitcase often includes low expectations of others and poor self-esteem. If a child doesn’t think that he’ll be treated well by others or that she deserves to have good things happen to her, a seemingly good experience may be anxiety provoking. Sometimes children have learned to sabotage good things before they happen in order to at least have some control over their lives. Other times, they feel they just don’t deserve the good thing, whether it is a special outing or a video game they have wanted. And sometimes they’re aware that their siblings are not getting such “goodies” and feel guilty about enjoying them.

Anticipating such reactions in advance can help you and your foster child. Consider reminding her that sometimes it’s hard to get really excited about something when she’s afraid it may not happen. Encourage your foster child to talk to you about his excitement and to tell you or another trusted person if he’s feeling anxious. If you will be at the event with your child, show her a signal he can give you (such as tapping on your shoulder) if he needs a break from the activity and a chance to chill out. With a younger child who has received a much anticipated gift, the most helpful thing may be to offer to keep it safe in a special place when she’s not using it so she’ll have it for a long time.

Thinking aloud in your foster child’s presence is also a great way to provide support. Wondering out loud whether sometimes kids feel guilty about getting to do things or have special possessions when their siblings don’t can give your foster child permission to feel these things without judgment. It may even help him share with you his mixed feelings, hopefully leading to a great deal of relief. In time and with your love and support, your foster son or daughter will be better able to handle the good things that life has to offer. Your patience and understanding will help make their journey to that better place shorter.

Foster Parenting Dilemmas: Understanding Puzzling Behaviors

Girl with suitcaseAll children and teenagers exhibit challenging behaviors at times. Usually parents have an idea where such behaviors are coming from. Is the child hungry, cranky, or perhaps experiencing typical challenges and insecurities of the teenage years?

When we understand a behavior, it’s easier to respond in a way that is helpful for the child and comfortable for the parent. Often foster children act in ways that seem to make no sense to their foster parents. A young foster child who is desperate for playmates may consistently push away other children. Or an adolescent foster daughter may act out before an event she has been eagerly anticipating. A foster child may hoard food in his room, attracting both “critters” and the confusion of his foster parents, who provide plenty of food for their family.

A concept called the “invisible suitcase” can be a helpful way to understand such puzzling behaviors: http://bit.ly/1T1cDWR. Children in foster care typically bring with them just a few physical possessions, but along with that they bring the sum total of all of their life experiences. These experiences are the contents of the invisible suitcase.

If a child has learned that he’s not lovable, he carries that feeling in the invisible suitcase he brings to his foster home. And he’ll likely act accordingly as if to ensure that others affirm his negative view of himself. If a child has learned that she can’t trust adults, she carries that in her invisible suitcase and may be resistant to trusting a new adult in her life.

Rest assured, it’s not personal! The behavior that makes no sense to you likely makes perfect sense to your foster child.

You can help unpack that invisible suitcase. Over time, as you provide a healing, loving and consistent set of experiences, the contents of the suitcase will disappear. This will help your foster child let go of the suitcase and move on to tackling the more typical challenges of growing up. We’ll address some specific strategies for managing challenging behaviors in foster care in a future post.

And remember, you’re not alone. These puzzling behaviors can be difficult to manage. Reach out to fellow foster parents and to the social worker at your foster care agency.

Note: For more information on the concept of the invisible suitcase check out http://bit.ly/1T1cDWR on the website of The National Child Traumatic Stress Network.

Fostering Older Youth: Let the Healing Begin

“Kids need families to grow up – that’s just what they need.” 

girl-676185_1280That’s what a Plummer foster youth said and we believe it’s true, no matter the age or circumstance of the young person in care. Sadly, thousands of youth exit the foster care system every year without a family to call their own. They often face homelessness, unemployment and worse. People who foster teens and older youth can help make sure this doesn’t happen.

Many older youth in foster care have been moved over and over again. They’ve grown up thinking that their next move may be just around the corner. That just one mistake can lead to them being moved from their current foster home into another, or into a group home. In all likelihood they’ve changed schools repeatedly and fallen behind.  We know that bouncing from place to place like this, never knowing who they will be living with next, makes it difficult for foster youth to trust anyone.

Adults who foster these young people are in a position to make a profound difference. When a youth in foster care begins to understand that someone is committed to stopping them from bouncing around the foster care system and is determined to help them find a permanent family, it frees her to begin to heal.

Plummer’s goal is for a Plummer foster home to be a young person’s last foster home. This doesn’t mean the foster parent(s) will adopt. What it means is that the foster parent(s) understand how harmful it is for a child to keep bouncing around from place to place and are willing to do the best they can to make their home the last stop before that child finds a permanent family. Sometimes the foster family may indeed become the permanent family, most times they will not.

We know we are raising the bar for foster care. We’re doing it because we deeply believe it’s what is best for kids. We provide our foster families extra support to hang in through the tough times. Foster youth do best when a permanent family is the goal for them. The path to that permanent family is through a committed foster family.

Imagine changing a child’s life course from one headed toward homelessness to one headed toward a forever family. Won’t you join us in changing lives?

Taking Care of yourself as a Foster Parent

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parent self careAs a foster parent, it can be easy to fall into the belief that all of our time, attention, and emotional energy should be focused on your children. After all, their needs are great: they may be recovering from trauma, they may have special needs, and at the very least they will need lots of support to feel comfortable and accepted in a new household. At the end of a long day, it can be easy for foster parents to forget to take care of themselves.

But there is good reason to strive for balance. After all, healthy families are created when all family members, adults and children alike, feel listened to, loved, and taken care of. It may be difficult, but as a parent it is extremely important to ask for the space, time and opportunity to care for yourself.

One way to start is by building your support system. Talking with friends, family or professionals will allow you to express any powerful emotions, such as frustration, sadness or fear, before they build into stress that can affect your health.  Friends and family can also provide concrete support, such as watching your children when you want to take some time to get a haircut, do some fun shopping, or visit with friends.  Don’t be afraid to ask!

Even during the busiest days, taking care of yourself can be as easy as actively seeking out moments of joy. Download some of your favorite songs to your smart phone and listen to them in the car when driving between errands and appointments. Turn a grocery store run into a scavenger hunt for your kids, making up silly clues along the way. Throw a dance party in your living room. Keep a book by your bedside and read a page of two before going to sleep. Incorporating positive times into your routine will be easier if you start with the little things.

Foster parents deserve to take time for themselves. Nurturing and caring for a foster child can be some of the most demanding and worthy work that anyone can do. Building care for yourself into your life will teach your children the importance of the cultivation of joy, respect for one’s self, and setting limits so that the family works for everyone. It can be easy to forget how much our children learn from the examples that we set for them. Make sure you set an example by taking care of yourself.

Celebrating Holidays with your Foster Children

Christmas cookiesChristmas and Hanukkah can be a joyous time for most, but for many youth in foster care the holiday season can also bring added stress and anxiety.

Dr. John DeGarmo, a foster parent as well as a professional in the field, talks about his experiences fostering youth over the holidays in Foster Focus Magazine. He writes,

 “When they wake up Christmas morning, and are surrounded by people who just may be strangers to them, strangers who are laughing and having fun, it can be a very difficult time for them, indeed. To be sure, it is a day that is a stark reminder to these children that they are not with their own family. It is during the holidays when families are supposed to be together, yet these children in care are not. They are not with their families, and they may not know when they will see them next.”

Dr. DeGarmo gives tips to foster parents on how to help youth through these difficulties. He reminds families that it is expected that some youth will regress during the holidays and revert back to old behaviors or attitudes. Dr. DeGarmo believes that allowing youth their own space to grieve is of utmost importance.

He also recommends that families prepare the foster youth for the holiday by talking about their family’s traditions and asking youth what their own traditions might be. Adding a child’s traditions shows the youth that you care about them and respect their birth family.

To see more of Dr. DeGarmo’s suggestions click here.