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.

Helping A Kid Be A Kid: Guiding Your “Parentified” Foster Child

teenage boy 2Some teens in foster care had to take on adult responsibilities at a very young age. This typically occurs when a teen had to take care of younger siblings because the adults in the home weren’t functioning as parents. Your foster teen may have been routinely responsible for seeing that younger children were fed, bathed, put to bed and cared for when sick. In these circumstances, the caretaking youth has been expected to take on the role of parent to such a degree that his or her own developmental needs as a child have been neglected.

Youth who grow up having to do the work of a parent are described as being “parentified.” A foster parent who welcomes such a child into their home understandably has the urge to relieve the parentified child of her responsibilities and let her experience being a “normal kid”. However, when such a youth is placed in a foster home being expected to “just be a kid” may be very difficult. If the youth is placed with her younger siblings she may resent losing her position in the family and compete with the foster parents for the role of caretaker. If she has been placed apart from siblings, she may be overwhelmed by guilt and feel she has abandoned her siblings.

As in most foster parenting challenges, awareness of the youth’s perspective is vital in to being helpful. Acknowledging the loss of the parental role is important. It may be helpful to ask your foster youth the specifics of what she did for her siblings and what that was like for her. Your social worker can provide guidance about ways to do this. If you are caring for the foster youth as well as her younger siblings, expect times when there will be confusion about who is in charge in the home.

If your foster youth’s siblings are not living with you she may enjoy having fewer responsibilities but worry about her brothers and sisters and feel guilty that she is no longer caring for them. Do whatever you can to see that she maintains regular contact with her siblings.

Remember that the parentified child has had to learn how to be competent at many things at an early age. Acknowledge her competence and let her use her skills in ways that demonstrate her abilities and talents. At the same time, provide her opportunities to be a “regular kid” and praise her for things that she does that are more age-appropriate. It may take a lot of effort for her to try out the role of a regular teenager by getting involved in a school activity or developing friendships which provide opportunities to hang out with peers. With your support and guidance she will get there and you will get to see her have the experiences that will help her move successfully from adolescence to young adulthood.

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 Care for LGBT Families

Pride flagLesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender adults: we need you!! Although you may sometimes wonder if you can be a foster parent, the answer in Massachusetts is a resounding YES!

Not only that, but kids here in Massachusetts are in vital need of parents of all sorts. If you have love, patience, perseverance, flexibility and the ability to advocate on behalf of yourself and your foster child, you will be a great foster parent!

As an LGBT adult who wishes to become a foster parent, you may find you have questions that are specific to LGBT families. Luckily, there are many resources available. The first step is to reach out to the agency you work with, such as the Department of Children and Families or a private agency like Plummer Foster Care. Other resources include The Child Welfare Information Gateway, which provides a clearinghouse for LGBT parents.  They have a helpful FAQs page that will point you to a number of resources.

Thankfully, the cultural conversation has shifted away from suspicion of LGBT couples or individuals as parents towards acceptance of the idea that all children deserve loving, stable homes, and LGBT families are more than capable of providing them. This cultural shift has been helped along by research suggesting that children raised by gay or lesbian parents fare as well as those raised by heterosexual parents.

A study released this year, conducted by Boston’s Tufts University and an affiliated medical center, for example, suggests that gay fathers participate in parenting activities as often as their straight counterparts, and that their children experience approximately the same levels of happiness and anxiety as those raised by straight men. The Tufts study followed one released by the UCLA School of Law, the University of Amsterdam, and Columbia University, also in 2016. This study took an in-depth look at same-sex female couples, and found that children raised by lesbian couples enjoy the same physical and emotional health that kids from opposite-sex couples do. 

Reports indicate nearly six million children and adults in the United States have at least one gay or lesbian parent. Ultimately, being an LGBT parent is the same as being any kind of parent—there is lots of joy involved, but sometimes it can be very hard. That’s why it’s important to ensure that you have a robust support system around you, which includes friends, neighbors, family if possible, and even mental health and child welfare professionals. Families gain resilience based on the relationships they build with caring individuals and communities, and LGBT families are no different.

There are so many children in Massachusetts in need of loving homes. In the Commonwealth, LGBT parents are welcome and encouraged to become involved in the foster care system, and to become partners in the quest to provide an ever brighter future for these children. We are grateful to have you!

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.

When Foster Parents Get Children on Short Notice

Foster parents don’t always have time to get to know a child who is coming to live with them. In fact, it is sometimes only a few hours between when a child is removed from their home to when they arrive at the home of a foster family. So how can you help your foster child settle in?

Start by explaining your routines so the child gets a sense of how your family operates. Remember that every family has different ways of organizing their lives. Some families have mealtime routines which involve even young children in food preparation, setting the table and cleanup. In other families children are called to the table when it is time to eat and are not expected to do much more than clear their plate after eating. Both routines are perfectly normal and work well for most families. For a foster child in a new home your “normal” routine may be totally different from anything he or she has known in his previous home.

children-403582_1280Explain bit by bit how things work in your home and give him a reminder before he is expected to participate in a family routine. For example, saying that there will be fifteen more minutes before the television is turned off lets him know what to expect and protects him from feeling caught off guard. He still may not want the television turned off but he will have been given a chance to prepare for it.

Moving into a new environment where everything is unfamiliar can be overwhelming for anyone. Patiently helping your foster child “learn the ropes” of your home can make a big difference.

It’s also helpful to ask him how he is used to doing things. Especially with older children and teens it may be important to be flexible whenever possible about smaller things. Getting homework done is a non-negotiable; where it gets done may be something you can flex on.

At Plummer we appreciate how hard our foster families work to welcome new children into their homes. Explaining your family’s routines and demonstrating how things work in your home will help your new foster child feel comfortable and accepted. And that’s good for everyone.

Foster Youth and Grief

boy 2A child in the foster care system gets angry, acts out, or has a temper tantrum. They are labeled as “difficult” or “oppositional.”

But could these behaviors be an expected symptom of their grief?

Shenandoah Chefalo writes about this very topic in Youth Today. She convincingly argues that while we often allow for outbursts of a grieving person after the death of a loved one, we are not as likely to have that same understanding for a tough youth in foster care that may have lost all they have known and is familiar to them.

She reminds us that “These children have suffered a tremendous loss — a deep sadness and grief that often goes unrecognized and leads to deeper traumas.” It encourages those who care for youth in the system to remember that one of the most important roles of foster parents involves helping youth identify and cope with their grief.

To read more of Chefalo’s article, click here.