When I think back on my first few months as a foster parent, I cringe.
My heart was in the right place. It really was. But I was so ignorant.
There was just so very much I did not know.
I think every new parent recognizes, with the benefit of hindsight, some ways that she or he would do things differently if they had it to do over again. That is certainly the case for me.
As I reflect on myself five years ago and think about the biggest mistakes I made, I want to share them in the hope that I might spare a new foster parent or two from making them too. (Don’t worry, though—you’ll find some of your own mistakes to make!)
First, I expected my five-year-old foster son to act like a typical five-year-old. As I shared in this video, children who come from trauma and neglect often have an “age composite.” When it comes to setting your expectations, it’s important to realize that, often, the age of children in foster care can be understood more as a puzzle than as a simple number.
There is the chronological age, of course, which is often what sets our expectations. But we need to also consider their emotional age (which can often be about half of their chronological age), their physical age (they might appear younger or older than their chronological age, depending on factors like nutrition, abuse, stress and trauma), their educational age (if they have been inconsistent in school attendance, for example, they might be behind peers academically), and their experiential age (for example a nine-year-old girl who was primary caregiver to her younger siblings when their mom was unable to parent would have an older experiential age than a typical nine-year-old.)
I did not understand this when we got our first children, and I expected my five-year-old to act like a five-year-old. I gave him a toothbrush and told him to brush his teeth, then got frustrated when he just sucked off the toothpaste without brushing. Eventually, I discovered that he had never brushed his teeth before coming to our home. He had no idea how to brush his teeth, because no one had ever taught him. I had been brushing my own teeth since I was quite small, so I expected him to at least be familiar with brushing his teeth!
It wasn’t until many months later than I realized he was emotionally and educationally more like a toddler, while he was physically typical of a five-year-old but experientially like someone much older. Once I began to understand that I needed to treat him like someone who was much younger emotionally, meeting his emotional needs more like I would a two-year-old, we were able to start seeing progress. Sadly, it took me a while to get there.
A second mistake I made was that I expected my foster son to have the same understanding of “right” and “wrong” that I had. One instance that illustrates this perfectly is a trip to a grocery store. After I had finished my shopping and we got to the car, I discovered my foster son had stolen some candy from the store. My immediate response was to express my shock and disapproval for his actions and march him back into the store to face the store manager and ‘fess up to his crime. I assumed he knew what he had done was wrong.
It wasn’t until a few months later that I was in a conversation with a relative of my foster son and she told me that his mother had taught him how to shoplift. It was how they got things they needed, she explained. His mother had encouraged him to steal earrings for her as well as candy for himself. I felt horrible when I realized my mistake. He had no idea taking candy from a store without paying for it was wrong; his own mother had taught him to do it! That was a real eye-opening moment for me. And it was also another opportunity to feel awful about how I had handled something my foster son did.
The third big mistake I made as a new foster parent was to deal with my foster son’s “big feelings” and “big actions” by yelling at him. (I’m sad as I type these words. How I wish I could go back and get a re-do of that first year!) Our son had a lot of behavior challenges, and when he got really difficult, I would often resort to yelling in order to get him to stop doing something, start doing something else, or just be redirected. Yelling, I was convinced, was the only thing that worked with him.
I know now that kids like my foster son need the adults in their lives to model good self-regulation—to give them something healthy to imitate. After all, when it comes to parenting, “more is caught that taught.” Unfortunately, instead of modeling good self-regulation, I imitated my foster son’s big emotions and chaos. I spent a lot of time during that first year “in the red,” as I call it: stressed, angry, frustrated, afraid, exhausted and close to despair.
I got a lot of good help from different sources, but the thing that helped me stop yelling so much and start parenting in a way that was much more empowering and connecting for my son and me was Positive Parenting Solutions. (Before you get the impression that I stopped yelling altogether, let me clarify—I yell much less than I used to, but I still have my moments.) What a difference this program has made in our home! My husband and I both took the whole course and I go back and listen to the material every couple of months or so. I highly recommend it (and have, in fact, become an affiliate. I’m such a fan of this program!)
These are just a few of my Big Mistakes as a new foster parent. I’ll share more in the future (there are plenty to choose from!)
How about you? What are some of the things you look back on as a new foster parent and wish you had done differently?