I was in a therapy session with one of my kids, and out of nowhere, he went from painting a picture of an ice cream truck and chattering away happily about all of the things he did that week, to crying huge crocodile tears and growling about how angry he was at me. The shift in his behavior was so abrupt, his therapist and I were both at a loss for how to console him. We tried to get to the bottom of what triggered his outburst, but we never did. A few moments later, after he had had a good cry, expressed his anger at me, and then melted into a puddle in my lap, his countenance shifted and he was all smiles again. I grabbed a tissue and held it for him to “blow,” wiped his tears from his cheeks, and we moved on to work a puzzle together for the remainder of his session.
Welcome to parenting a child of trauma.
There was so much going on inside this little boy, who was all of five years old. I was the fourth woman he had called “Mom,” and, as far as we knew, I was not the last—he was expected to be adopted by a distant family member eventually, and he knew it. While he would not be able to express it with words, his body and emotions communicated loudly and clearly that he could not fully commit to loving us—or being loved by us. He had moved homes and gotten an entirely new family three times in a year-and-a-half. New smells, new pets, new bed, new diet, new bedtime routine, new flavor of toothpaste, new clothes, new toys, new siblings, new school, new therapist, and, above all, new rules and expectations for what it means to be part of this family. We treated him well, offered lots of love and affection and enriching activities, and we also gave him good boundaries and reasonable consequences when he needed correction. We were forming a little person, for however long he was with us, and teaching him to take responsibility for his actions, to reconcile after a conflict and to be restored in a relationship after trust has been broken are some of the best things we can offer any child who lives in our home (in addition to unconditional love and nurturing affection.)
The child is the ultimate victim in the foster care world—not that we want to label them as “victims,” for they are, each and every one of them, so much more than a “victim.” But that is rather simply to say that no involved with foster care suffers more loss, more trauma, more confusion, or more damage than the children who are removed from the only parents they’ve ever known and placed with strangers.
Even when that is the best move for them.
In this particular case, I have no doubt that this child’s safety and well-being was seriously compromised while he was with his first mom. While I make it a practice not to share any intimate or identifying details about the children in my care, suffice it to say that I have it on good authority that removing him and placing him in a safe foster home was in his best interest. But even when it’s what is best for that child, serious damage is done. No child in foster care has been spared trauma. And no child in foster care is unaffected by it.
To compound the trauma, his first foster parent found him to be “too much.” He was not potty trained, he was very emotional and cried often, loudly and for a long time. She cried “uncle” after two weeks or so, and he was moved to foster parent number two. This foster parent loved him, took good care of him, got him services (occupational therapy, behavioral therapy, speech therapy, preschool, and mental health services) and helped him grow and make good progress during the year he was with her. But after a year, when his mother’s rights had been terminated and he was available for adoption, his foster mom knew she had to request that he be moved again. She loved him, she cared about him—but she was not able to adopt him. She was not able to make a lifetime commitment to him. She was a good foster parent—but she was just that: a foster parent.
So he moved in with us. We did not know how long he would be with us when we said “yes.” We knew distant relatives were in the process of being licensed to get custody of him, but we had no idea how long that process would last. The therapy appointment I mentioned about took place about six months after he moved in with us, when the honeymoon period had long ended and his big feelings were like another person living in our house.
After that therapy appointment, I dropped him off at school and called his therapist. We talked for over forty-five minutes, going through his history and all of the broken attachments he’s had. We discussed where he was at in his own arc of childhood psychology and development, and what new feelings were being stirred up simply because he was growing more aware of his position in our home (transracial foster child—different skin, different hair, different last name, different/unknown expectation of how long he would be with us).
I was expressing how hard it was to be a foster parent—when you love a child so much, and you do absolutely everything you can think of to help them, and then you realize that the wounds are too deep, the circumstances are too wrecked, the carnage is too imprinted on his young heart and mind…
There is nothing I can do to make this all better for him.
I was expressing how helpless I feel, how frustrating it is to see him suffer, to know that he needs to be in his forever home ASAP so he can begin to set down roots, which is a first, or at least very important, step in the healing process, and his therapist made the passing comment that it must be hard to work so hard on behalf of a child and have him respond with so much anger toward me.
She said it must be hard to do so much and get no gratitude in return.
I knew what she meant. In general, when a person works hard and does a lot for another person, that person hopes for some thanks, some gratitude, some appreciation for the gift. It’s natural to want that, right?
But not for the foster parent.
As foster parents, we must never find ourselves craving gratitude from our foster children, for the simple fact that children, especially small children, are not supposed to feel gratitude for their caregivers!
Sure, we can teach and model what it means to give thanks for things. We should do that, and when we do it effectively, our little three-year-old’s spontaneous and unprompted “Thank you, Mommy!” will surely bring tears of joy to our eyes.
But how many five-year-olds do you know who express gratitude to their parents for things like the roof over their heads, bedtime books, Cheerios in their breakfast bowl, or new sneakers? Young children are fundamentally egocentric; they do not, as a general rule, feel gratitude for all that their parents do for them. They expect it.
They should expect it. An emotionally healthy and connected five year old boy should expect that his needs (and many of his wants) are going to be met, and he should not feel grateful when they are. When I tuck my five-year-old daughter in at night, she doesn’t say, “Thanks for the safe place we have to live! Thanks for the gymnastics classes you pay for! Thanks for the books and my clothes and for paying for Netflix!” My daughter is not inherently “grateful” for these things—she expects them. We do work on teaching gratitude—it’s huge in our house—but coaching our kids on how to feel thankful for blessings in their life is not the same as instructing them to feel grateful for the roof over their head.
That day will come, of course. I have worked hard to cultivate gratitude in my life, and I continue to do so.
But gratitude is something that we grow into as we mature. Gratitude is something we gain, maybe, hopefully, in time—but not at age five, or even fifteen, if we have not been taught gratitude, and foster parents would be wise to check our hearts regularly and make sure that we are not expecting that our kids carry a weight of “feeling grateful” to us for the things we do for them.
A child who feels “grateful” for having his basic needs met is a child who does not feel safe, or that he belongs, or that he is part of this family. That child knows he is an outsider and functions as one, full of fear, insecure, unsure of his standing, expecting that any moment he might blow it and be moved again.
Perhaps it’s obvious, but just in case it’s not, let me be clear: that is not what we want.
We want the exact opposite.
The most encouraging thing for me in that therapy session was the fact that my boy felt safe enough to unleash his anger on me. That is the best sign I can hope for right now that we are building trust and that he feels safe. Is it fun? Not at all. But it is healthy. He’s been through so much. How could he not feel angry? And we all know that we channel our anger on those we trust most.
“I don’t want him to feel grateful,” I said to the therapist. “I want him to feel safe. I want him to feel whole.” Yes, it’s frustrating to pour out your life on behalf of another person and then bear the brunt of their anger. But, for the foster parent, this is part of it. This is a huge part of it—creating a safe space for a child whose heart has been broken many times over to do the hard work of healing.
And to do it without expecting any gratitude in return.
If you do that part right, who knows?
Maybe someday they will feel grateful.