3 Reasons to Read to Your Foster Child Every Single Day

I had a friend once describe running as one of the most efficient means of exercise there is. He pointed out that it requires no equipment (except a good pair of running shoes), no commute to the gym, burns a lot of calories, gets you a dose of vitamin D, can be done anytime, and gives you a great cardio workout. Like me, my friend does not particularly enjoy running, but he does enjoy being physically fit. So running is part of his regular routine.

What running is to physical fitness, reading is to child-rearing. Reading is one of the most efficient things we can do every day to contribute to our relationship with our children and help them flourish. This is true for every child, but it is especially important for those of us caring for children in foster care. Here’s why:

Reading aloud to a child contributes significantly to their language development, which is fundamental to most other areas of cognitive growth and mental health in a child. This is important for all children, but it is especially vital for children who have experienced early childhood neglect and a delay in language development. This study from the National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine notes that, “Neglect is the type of maltreatment most strongly associated with delays in expressive, receptive, and overall language development.” The study also finds that, “Children who are unable to communicate effectively may not have the necessary skills to negotiate or resolve conflict and may have difficulties understanding and relating to others. Psychiatric disorders such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, anxiety, depression, conduct disorder, and oppositional defiant disorder are highly associated with language impairment, and a combination of these problems may lead to poor social functioning as these individuals enter adulthood.”

According to Rhode Island’s Reach Out and Read, “Reading aloud is widely recognized as the single most important activity leading to language development. Among other things, reading aloud builds word-sound awareness in children, a potent predictor of reading success.” This is good news for those of us who parent children who experienced neglect early on. While they may have gotten a late start, reading aloud to them every day can have a repairing effect, essentially making up for lost language learning time.

Reading aloud fosters a child’s sense of imagination. From birth to about two years of age, children are learning about the world around them primarily through their senses: they want to touch and taste everything they can get their hands on (if you have ever worn glasses while holding a one-year-old, you know just what I mean!) But from age two to age seven or so, a child’s imagination is starting to grow. They begin to understand things symbolically and metaphorically, and listening to stories encourages this development (as does imaginative play).

Children who have experienced early childhood neglect often experience a stunted imagination. However, reading aloud daily can, once again, repair that deficit and fuel their imaginative brain function. Asking a child questions that help them reflect on the stories they are hearing actually helps to exercise their imagination and carve important neuropathways in their brains.

Reading aloud provides a great means of connection between a child and a caregiver. It is no surprise that children who have experienced broken attachments, meaning they have been separated from a primary caregiver (i.e. a parent), struggle to bond and attach with others. However, attachment is a vital part of emotional and mental development. Children learn how to have relationships through their attachments, they experience a sense of safety and security through attachment, and they learn emotional regulation through modeling after their caregivers. When those attachments are broken, the damage can be catastrophic, with life-long affects.

While there is no way to totally repair the devastation of attachment disruptions in children, reading to a new foster child is a simple and non-threatening way to bond with them. Sitting together on a couch and reading aloud to your foster child is a natural way to connect physically, mentally, and emotionally. Laughing together at something silly (such as Mo Willems’s Elephant and Piggie stories or any number of other good books for children) releases endorphins, which are considered the body’s natural “feel-good” chemicals. Endorphins promote an overall sense of well-being and can even temporarily relieve pain, making laughter truly good medicine.

Books can also provide a non-threatening way to address hard topics that are common for children in foster care. Books like The Night Dad Went to Jail, Tommy’s 2 Mommies, and Stellaluna allow children to talk about hard things they have experienced without talking about themselves. I have watched children in my care open up about the characters in these stories, when they would never offer to talk about their own experiences directly.

Reading aloud daily (or nightly at bedtime) also provides a wonderful opportunity for a child to exercise some personal autonomy. By inviting your child to choose a book (or two or three) each night, they get to experience a hit of power, which contributes tremendously to a child’s sense of personal agency and satisfaction.

Simply put, reading aloud to your foster child every day is one of the very best things you can do for them. If a child is with you for six months, and you read to them every day of their placement, that’s 168 opportunities to contribute to their language skills! If a child is with you for a year, and you read one book to them every day, that’s 365 chances to foster their imagination! And if a child comes to you at age seven and you read to them every night until they’re thirteen, that’s over two thousand excuses to sit and snuggle and bond with your child. And for the record, there is no reason to stop reading aloud to your children when they become teens. Reading aloud is something I love to do with my eldest daughter, who came to us when she was fifteen!

For more information and inspiration on reading aloud with your kids, including book recommendations for kids of all ages, check out the wonderful resources at Read Aloud Revival. And share your favorite books to read with your kids below!

Processing Grief in The Time of the Virus

Week One of being homebound by the Corona Virus was really sweet in our house.

I knew that getting a routine in place right away would be important, so I created a plan that included a lot of structured play time, outside time, and a little bit of academic learning time.

By Week Two, I felt like I was hitting my stride. I repurposed a set of drawers to create a Homeschool Station. I collected a bunch of online resources. I added a “Morning Meeting” to the schedule to build in time to connect with my kids and communicate the plan for the day.

However, in Week Two I also started wearing the same clothes two days in a row. I stopped fixing my hair and just wore a hat every day. I started noticing some signs of stress: headaches, stomachaches. And I felt so tired.

We have now finished three weeks in self-quarantine, and my headache is almost constant. My brain feels fuzzy—on Thursday, while making dinner, I opened a can of soup and started pouring it into the garbage can instead of the pan on the stove. I am feeding my kids, but not myself until well after lunch time.

Like pretty much everyone on the face of the earth right now, I’m in Survival Mode, and one thing I have learned about myself is that I am very high-functioning in Survival Mode. In some ways, this is me at my best: getting things done, managing people, problem solving. But it can only go on for so long. Pretty soon—like, last week, I’d say, grief begins to set in and things get really, really hard.

I’ve been thinking a lot about grief lately.

We had a Coaching Call about grief a few weeks ago. Our guest speaker was trauma and adoption therapist Barbara Tantrum, whose new book, The Adoptive Parent’s Handbook: A Guide to Healing Trauma and Thriving with Your Foster or Adopted Child,* is available for pre-order now. In that call, which is available as a digital download here (through April 12), we talked specifically about the grief children in foster care and foster parents themselves might face. Barbara gave some great insight and suggestions for how to process that grief.

But now, here we are as a global community living through an unprecedented time of stress, and grief is going to become a huge part of all of our lives. Students are grieving the loss of school, friends, beloved teachers, and normalcy. High school and college seniors are grieving the loss of end-of-school-career traditions, like prom and graduation.

As we make our way through these days of The Virus, it is imperative for our mental well-being that we make time to deal with our grief.

Grief that is not dealt with manifests in many ways, including physical and emotional unwellness. For someone like me, it looks like headaches and yelling at my kids, extreme anger, feelings of depression and lack of motivation. It looks like not showering, not getting dressed in actual clothes, skipping meals, and drinking too much (coffee, wine, whatever).

So what can we be doing now to address our grief and process it in a healthy way?

  1. Recognize the stages of grief and take some time to reflect where you’re at in the process. According to the book On Grief and Grieving*, there are five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. This past week, I realized I was somewhere between anger and depression. Recognizing that and taking a good look at where I am was what I needed to help me move toward acceptance and the sixth stage of grief, which is finding meaning. I’m not there yet, but I am hopeful that I’m on my way.
  2. Name your grief what it is: GRIEF. Take some time to talk or journal about what you miss and what you’re sad about. I miss time alone. I miss seeing my kids’ teachers at drop-off. I miss going to church. I miss going to the zoo, which is something we would be doing at least once a week right now. I miss feeling like the world is predictable. I miss the conveniences of life that I took for granted.
  3. Take care of your body. Are you eating too much or not enough? Sleeping too much or not enough? Exercising too much or not enough? How’s your hygiene? Be honest as you assess yourself. Tend to your physical well being. For me, this means taking a 20 minute walk or jog every day, just up and down my street for 20 minutes, and doing an online yoga class for at least 15 minutes. It means showering every night before bed. It means getting dressed in actual clothes, not putting on sweats that I can wear, sleep in, and wear again. This means eating oatmeal for breakfast (even though I have no appetite), fruit for snack, and drinking plenty of water (not just coffee, which is what I crave when I’m stressed).
  4. Find something to laugh about. I had one of my worst days as a parent in a long time yesterday. I was awful to my kids. But later, at dinner time, we started talking about “Mom’s Worst Moments” over the years, and as the kids talked about some of the worst things I’ve done and said to them, we were all laughing. Everyone is stressed. But everyone is also eager to laugh. We are watching funny videos with our kids, and I’m checking in with my favorite late night hosts (God bless Jimmy Fallon and Stephen Colbert). I also love all the parodies I’ve been looking up—this one is particularly funny to me, and you cannot go wrong with The Holderness Family on YouTube.
  5. Find someone to help. I’ve been reaching out via Marco Polo and FaceTime to my single friends who are doing this thing alone. We’ve been laughing together about how this is a time of extremes: for them, extreme time alone. For me, extreme time together. I’ve been sending money to food banks and supporting some low-income families in my kids’ school with food and help with rent. Yesterday, we took a kite outside and flew it in front of our next door neighbor’s window as their only child, a three-year-old boy we adore, watched and laughed from the safety of his living room. These are things I can do, and as an Enneagram 1(w)2, helping others helps me. What can you do?
  6. Find the “Isolation Blessings.” That’s what my mom is calling them—those good things that are happening because of the Time of the Virus. We had 30 people witness our adoption of our foster son last week via Google Meet, rather than the few who would have joined us in person. Our children with disrupted attachments are getting what they need most: time with us. We are in closer communication with our neighbors (albeit via email) than we’ve ever been. I’ve been in touch with many friends I had lost touch with in the past month, because we have time and we’re thinking about one another (yay Marco Polo!) We made an offer on a house yesterday, and the sellers accepted it rather than entertaining other offers because they don’t want a lot of people coming in and out of their home to look at it. My mom is teaching music lessons to my kids twice a week via FaceTime.

We don’t need to put a lot of pressure on ourselves in this season. We don’t need to “get things done” or “use this time productively.” We are grieving. We are surviving. We need to be gentle with ourselves.

But we do need to take care of ourselves. My friend Rebecca Beidel, a marriage and family therapist in New York City, shared this article recently and commented,

We need to take care of ourselves and each other during this time. The trauma is real. Reach out for the help you need. Be honest with someone about your struggles. Stay in touch with friends and family. Don’t isolate inside your isolation. Come out of your room and do something to connect with others. The virus is a real threat, but there are other damaging effects we need to take care to avoid.

I’d love to hear how your journey has been during this Time of the Virus. Where are you in the stages of grief? How are you coping? And how are you taking care of yourself?

Featured photo by Kristina Tripkovic on Unsplash

Post photo by Danielle MacInnes on Unsplash

*Affiliate link. I receive a small commission when you purchase this book from Amazon using this affiliate link.

3 Ways To Empower & Connect With Your Kids at Dinnertime

If you have followed A Fostered Life’s blog or YouTube channel for any length of time, it’s likely you’ve heard me emphasize the importance of empowering children. Two things children need most—all children, but especially children who have a history of trauma—is to feel empowered (or a sense of personal agency) and to feel connected (or a sense of belonging). This is the big takeaway I got from Positive Parenting Solutions (along with a fantastic arsenal of empowering and connecting tools), and when we began to embrace this concept and look for ways to empower and connect with our children on a daily basis, we saw a real change in our children’s relationships with one another and interactions with us.

One area of home life that is bursting with potential for empowering and connecting with kids is dinner time! In the midst of our hectic lives, with family members coming and going, the dinner table can be such a sacred space for a family.

Here are a few ways to empower and connect with kids at the dinner table.

Put your child in charge of dinner. About once every week or so, a child in our home is in charge of dinner. (Yes, this includes our five-year-old.) I communicate that child is in charge of dinner that night and work with them ahead of time to plan their meal. Sometimes that means looking at simple recipes, and other times it just means showing them a visual guide (keep reading) and letting them get creative. I encourage whichever child is in charge to delegate roles to others in the house. Sometimes they do, but I have one child who wants to do it all himself (or only have me help).

Give them a visual guide, then take your hands off the wheel. We use this one from Eastern Virginia Medical School, which is for omnivores. We have also used this one from Pick Up Limes, which is especially for vegans. This tool is a fantastic way to teach children how to have a well-balanced diet without them realizing you’re trying teaching them something 🙂 Giving a child a picture like this and letting them pick each component, with minimal input, is so empowering. Children are very perceptive, and given the opportunity, they will rise to the challenge! Some of the child-prepared meals we have had include spaghetti with meatballs and tossed salad, waffles with turkey sausage and sliced bananas, and fried chicken with tossed salad and bread. They look at the chart and choose foods that they can plug in to each section. It makes them feel very important and very grown up.

DIY Dinner. Another really simple tip for empowering your kids at meal times is to set out a bunch of ingredients and let them fix their own meal. Two meals that are really conducive to this are Taco Bowls (“Taco Tuesday” anyone?!) and Sandwich Bar (“Can you say charcuterie?”).

For Taco Bowls, everyone gets a scoop of rice in a bowl and then they get to add their own toppings from the bowls on the table: taco meat (vegan meatless crumbles work too), beans (this is the recipe I use in the Instant Pot), shredded lettuce, chopped tomatoes, shredded cheese, chopped avocado, corn, salsa, and taco sauce are our go-to taco bowl fixins. Sometimes I also put a bowl of tortilla chips out to scoop the bowls with. The kids love having independence and deciding what goes into their bowls!

For the Sandwich Bar, I just put out a basket of bread, a plate of lunch meat and cheese, lettuce, sliced tomatoes, a jar of peanut butter, a jar of jam, and condiments like mayonnaise, mustard, and ketchup. I usually also put out some veggies for dipping, like carrot sticks, cucumber slices, and mini sweet peppers. Each kid loves making their own sandwich, and it gives them a sense of personal empowerment.

Engaging conversations around the dinner table. Interacting around the dinner table helps promote the development of communication skills, interpersonal skills, and emotional bonding. According to The Family Dinner Project,

researchers found that for young children, dinnertime conversation boosts vocabulary even more than being read aloud to. The researchers counted the number of rare words – those not found on a list of 3,000 most common words – that the families used during dinner conversation. Young kids learned 1,000 rare words at the dinner table, compared to only 143 from parents reading storybooks aloud. Kids who have a large vocabulary read earlier and more easily.

IT’S SCIENCE: EAT DINNER TOGETHER, Anne Fishel, Ph.D, The Family Dinner Project

Dining together as a family is hugely important, for so many reasons. For example, according to this article from The Scramble, “kids and teens who share family dinners three or more times per week…

  • Are less likely to be overweight
  • Are more likely to eat healthy food
  • Perform better academically
  • Are less likely to engage in risky behaviors (drugs, alcohol, sexual activity)
  • Have better relationships with their parents

This is important for all children, but it is especially helpful for children who may be experiencing developmental delays due to early childhood neglect and trauma. Dinner tends to be a favorite time of night for our kids in foster care. They love the predictability and togetherness of it.

There are other ways to empower kids at dinner time. Giving them each jobs to do, inviting their input on menu planning, respecting their choices about what and how much to eat, and avoiding power struggles around food all contribute to their sense of empowerment. We host a dinner party every Monday, which gives our kids opportunities to get to know other people in the context of hosting a meal. However you go about it, look for ways to connect with and empower your kids at dinnertime.

I promise, you’ll be so glad you did!

Image via Canva.com