Letter to a New Foster Parent

Photo by Mathyas Kurmann on Unsplash

This week, I heard from a woman who is a brand new foster parent.

She and her husband had a child with them for a respite weekend—he was the first foster child placed in their home—and after he left, they were asked to become his permanent foster home (until he aged out of the system, which would have been a number of years.)

She wrote to ask for my input.

She shared that, when they signed up for foster care, it was because of a mentorship program that pairs older kids with foster parents who mentor them to adulthood. The commitment in that program is one to two years. This child was much younger than the kids they had felt compelled to serve, and the commitment would have been much longer than they were prepared for.

She also shared that she felt a desire to say “yes,” but her husband felt that they needed to stick with their original plan and commitment. Guilt was setting in for this new foster mama, because after only a few days with this child, she had grown to care for him a great deal and was very concerned for his well being if he did not find a home soon. She did not want him to feel rejected by them (and experience yet another rejection in his young life).

I am familiar with this scenario. If you are a foster parent for long, you probably will be too. I thought I would share my response to her in case others reading this are in a similar situation. I hope you find this helpful!

Hi there,

This is a really tough one. And something I am familiar with. 

My first thought is “go with your gut.” And when I say that, I mean both you and your husband. If one of you feels good about going forward with the placement of this child, but the other does not have a solid “yes” in his gut, I would pass on the opportunity. For my husband and me, ultimately, it has been our “gut” that has led us, and we have not been wrong yet. We took once placement of a child when we didn’t feel a solid “yes” in our gut, and that scenario did not work out. We have said “yes” a number of times times. We have said “no” many more times than that. So go with your (unified) gut. If you’re not unified to say “yes,” then you must say “no.”

Stick with your plan to foster for up to two years through the mentorship program until or unless you both feel led to change your plan. The thing about foster parenting is that there are ALWAYS going to be more kids that need you than you can care for, and the social workers will ALWAYS ask you for more than you might be willing/able to do. (And who can blame them? They are desperate to find good homes for their kids, and you fit the bill! Of course they’re going to ask!!) 

When we started our journey, our commitment was six months. The children in our care were not free for adoption, so we were asked to commit to keep them until their mom’s next court date. After that court date, we were asked to commit for another six months (until the next court date), which we did. (Ultimately, after two years, we adopted them.)

But we have had other kids we knew we could not keep long-term because of how their presence affected our kids. For example, we had one who was a serious biter. He was non-verbal, but very smart. His frustration with not being able to use words to express himself was very evident. He kept biting our two year old, and it always happened when I wasn’t looking! I would get my toddler ready for his bath and see huge teeth bruises on his back, arm, and even his head! I cared a lot for this child, held him for hours every night when he was going to bed, and loved him. Besides the biting, he could be really sweet! But we knew he couldn’t stay, because we could not keep our other child safe. In that case, we had only committed to a week, which gave his social worker time to find him and his brother a home together. In that case, giving them a safe and loving home for long enough to find a home for them to be in together (with no other kids!) was the best we could do for them.

Another child was with us for respite care several times and then needed to leave his current foster home. We knew him well by that point and were able to commit to him, so he moved in with us. Another child came to us as an emergency (through no fault of her own), and we agreed to keep her for one week so her social worker could find her an adoptive home. We fell in love with her immediately and knew in just a few days we were prepared to let her stay with us as long as she wanted to stay with us. We told her social worker to stop looking, she found her home.

So it’s really different each time. We had one baby who was a preemie and needed a lot of attention, but because we also had our three kids, who were toddlers and a high-needs elementary schooler at the time, we had to ask them to find him another home. (In that case, we had started as an emergency “he’s being released from the hospital tomorrow and needs somewhere to go” and then after a few days agreed to be his placement. After seven weeks, we knew we couldn’t make it work for everyone—including him. He needed a lot more attention than I was able to give with three other small children to care for. That was the one time we said “yes” when our gut said “no.”) He ended up going to a single foster mom and she has become a really good friend. We were able to stay in touch with that little guy, who is three now and has been reunified, and because his foster mom is still in touch with his mom, we still get to see him sometimes. That’s one of the reunification success stories I love to share.

Ultimately, I would say if your husband is reticent to make this commitment, don’t do it. It’s not worth it to your marriage, to the child (if it doesn’t work out), etc. There will be plenty of kids who fall within the parameters you are comfortable with. You can do respite care for now and keep your commitment level low. You might find that another child comes in and you both “know” you want to let them stay longer/forever. But if that’s not the case, just keep your commitment short and stick with your plan. You are still making a difference, even if you can’t be his forever family!

As for the whole idea of “not supposed to get too attached,” that’s not true. You SHOULD get attached. The kids need that from us. I remember every child we’ve had. I keep their pictures in frames in the stair case leading upstairs in our house. I’m still in touch with a lot of them—two of them came to my daughter’s birthday party over the weekend, in fact! Keep his picture somewhere and his name in your heart. These kids need to matter to us a lot — even when we aren’t able to give them a “forever home.”

I hope this helps. Best wishes on your foster parenting journey!

Christy

My “Six Pillars” of Trauma Informed Parenting

I spent several hours on the phone this week with a family that is in crisis. They are brand new to trauma-informed parenting and have reached a point of total despair. We have a mutual friend, and she thought I might be able to offer some insight to help them find their footing in the midst of a terrible storm.

Over the course of our conversations—I spoke with a parent and grandparents involved in caring for a highly dysregulated child—I tried to distill everything I know about trauma-informed parenting down to a few bullet points for them (which were fleshed out a lot during the hours we spent on the phone).

After we spoke, I wrote them an email in which I recapitulated what I shared. As I did that, I realized that, in my experience over the years caring for children who are often dysregulated because of early childhood trauma and neglect, attachment disruptions, and other neuro-atypical challenges (Autism Spectrum Disorder/ASD, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder/ADHD, Oppositional Defiant Disorder/ODD, etc.), this is what it all boils down to.

These are the pillars that hold up a trauma-informed parent.

The thing to note about pillars is that a structure can stand for a while if one of these is broken or missing. But without all of these in place, the structure is weakened and vulnerable to breaking down.

This is certainly the case for me. I have to be diligent in assessing how I’m doing pretty frequently—at least once a week. I need to look over the landscape of my life and interactions with my kids and see if the pillars are all standing. When they’re not, it is only a matter of time before a breakdown begins to occur. I snap. I scream. I say things I later regret. I scare the very children I am trying to heal. When things fall apart—or, more accurately, when I fall apart—I can always look back and see where one of these pillars was neglected or missing.

Here are the pillars.

Each one warrants a long conversation (and I have done YouTube videos about many of these concepts if you want to hear more.) This is also the main substance we discuss in The Flourishing Foster Parent (on live calls and in the recordings available to members after the fact).

When you are parenting a child who has experienced trauma and is acting out, defiant, or otherwise challenging, keep these things in mind:

  • EMPOWERMENT. Look for ways to empower the child throughout the day. Offer a “decision-rich environment.” Instead of, “Get your shoes on and go to the car,” try, “Which shoes do you want to put on, the black ones or your sneakers?” and “Do you want to sit in the front or the back seat?” or “Do you want to buckle yourself or do you want me to buckle you?” or “Do you want to listen to music or just have it quiet?”
  • CONNECTION. Spend time each day (10-15 min or so) on “Special Time” (or whatever you want to call it). This is one-on-one interaction between one child and one caregiver. During Special Time, the child gets to pick an activity (within reason) to do one-on-one. Playing Uno, a favorite video game, going to a playground, giving her a manicure, cooking, painting, etc. Let her choose the activity (again, this points to empowerment) and she gets your full attention during that time (connection).
  • COMPASSION and EMPATHY for this hard season the child is in. “I know how hard this is and am so sorry you’re having to go through this. What would make it easier for you today?” When I have said this to a child who is struggling, the responses have included things like, “I want you to hold me,” or “I want you to play with me,” or “I don’t want to go to school” or simply, “I’m sad.” In my experience, a child will rarely offer, “I miss my mom,” but if I say, “Tell me something you remember about your mom,” or “Tell me something you miss about your mom,” it seems to tap into a felt need the child did not have words or feel permission to say. Reminding a child, “You’re safe here. We love you and we are so glad you’re here” can be really soothing to a child (once they are calm enough to hear you!). Support her need to connect with her mom (if this is an issue). In my experience, not all children in foster care or adoption want to connect with their parents. But often they do. Even if you end up adopting a child, it’s still important to periodically acknowledge their feelings about their first mom or dad. Affirm the good in their mom (or first mom) and please, please, please—avoid criticizing the child’s parent! This goes for children in foster care and children going through a divorce. To the child, that parent is part of them—half of who they are. If you are criticizing their parent, it will feel like you are criticizing them. If contact with a parent is not possible, suggest making a video (and you be as enthusiastic as you can about it). “Your mom is really beautiful, and you have her eyes!” “Why don’t you tell her about your trip to the zoo last week!” “Let’s make her a cooking video!”
  • BUILD YOUR SUPPORT COMMUNITY. Find and join a support group. Get your child and yourself into counseling with a trauma-informed therapist. Make time to hone your trauma-informed parenting tools by reading articles, watching videos, or listening to podcasts (or join The Flourishing Foster Parent!) Find a few people who are also foster parents and connect with them regularly. I have a few people I text with to share both the failures and triumphs of the week. There is something so powerful about being in relationship with others who get it.
  • MODEL EMOTIONAL REGULATION, especially when a child is dysregulated. This takes hard work and preparation, and, for me, this is the hardest part of parenting a child who is frequently dysregulated, because I can get dysregulated too!! This point actually ties closely to the next, which is…
  • PRACTICE GOOD SELF CARE. I can’t emphasize enough how important this is for enduring the challenges of trauma informed parenting. Get your sleep (even if it means housework gets put off.) Exercise your body. Eat to fuel your body, not just to soothe your emotions. Stay hydrated. Make sure you have at least one hobby or interest outside of parenting, and make time for that. Get together with a friend for coffee, or at least catch up by phone, at least once a week. Pray. Practice mindful breathing and gratitude. Stay organized and maintain some margin in your schedule to allow for the unexpected. Give yourself time for a long shower or bubble bath a few times a week. Listen to music that feeds your soul. Dance with your kids. Laugh more. Find a way to get some space/time alone—even if it’s just taking a walk or running to the grocery store by yourself.

These are my “six pillars of trauma-informed parenting.” Like anything that is held up by pillars, your life can stand for a while without all of these in place. But you will be much stronger and more secure—and less at risk of burning out—if you are evaluating each of these areas and working to ensure they are solidly in place.

Here are a few more things I recommend:

Positive Parenting Solutions.* This program is based in empowering and connecting with your child, and offers thirty-seven “tools” for managing your children’s behaviors that are not traditional discipline or consequences (which don’t really work for children who are easily dysregulated). Some of the tools I use most are walking away from a power struggle, either-or statements, decision rich environment, special time, written schedules, etc. All of them are great, though. This is the parenting program I swear by (and have become an affiliate of—I’m such a believer in these concepts!)

Beyond Consequences, Logic, and Control: A Love-Based Approach to Helping Attachment-Challenged Children With Severe Behaviors* (Book). We just finished our summer book study on this in The Flourishing Foster Parent, and I am already going back to review and refresh myself on the content. When you’re in the middle of it, it’s so important to be reminded of how to respond, because, at least for me, it is NOT intuitive!

Lastly, I have two videos to share, in which I share some fundamental concepts for trauma-informed parents to bear in mind:

If you are new to trauma-informed parenting (a new foster parent or parenting a child struggling with the effects of divorce or some other trauma), or you have been at it for a while but are stuck in some unhelpful cycles, I hope this helps.

I’d love to hear your feedback. Let me know if this rings true for you. What would you add? What are the pillars holding your life up?

*Affiliate link

Why I Love Having Friends Who Are Foster Parents

Photo by Katie Treadway on Unsplash

My kids and I are on a road trip this week.

After flying across the country and spending a few weeks with my parents, the kids and I took off in our rented vehicle and started a little tour of visiting friends in another city. I booked us a suite at a hotel and we made ourselves at home there for two nights, enjoying the pool and the continental breakfast and Disney Jr., and the unlimited evening Happy Hour snacks. And over the course of three days, I got to visit with three women who are dear friends, two of whom are also current or former foster parents (and the third knows a lot more than the average person about the foster care system through being friends with several foster parents).

These women are awesome, and we would be friends whether we shared foster care in common or not. We spent hours talking about our experiences growing up, dating, marriage, the enneagram (it seems like all my closest friends are into it as much or more than I am!), our shared Christian faith, and our careers. We laughed together and talked so freely and easily, and spending time connecting with each of them was such a balm to my soul.

But the thing that was more special than anything is that we also share this experience of foster parenting—this strange, hard, beautiful, redemptive experience of foster parenting. And being able to talk about our experiences—the challenges and the triumphs—without feeling like we have to watch our words or fear being misunderstood was so edifying.

We discussed books we’ve read that have been helpful. We discussed “nature versus nurture.” We discussed ACEs and the long-term effects of early childhood trauma, prenatal exposure to drugs and alcohol, disruptions and attachment. We discussed our own trauma, PTSD, triggers, coping strategies, and failures. We helped each other see progress and victories that are hard to see when you’re living in the day-to-day. We listened and shared and encouraged and supported each other.

And when our time together ended after each visit, we felt lighter.

I know we did.

Somehow, sharing together and being together and laughing together lifted our spirits and lightened our load.

I am grateful for all of my friends. I have some really, really great ones!

But, in this season of my life, I have a special gratitude for my friends who are foster parents. I’m grateful for time and space and opportunities to be with others who get it.

The challenges of foster parenting can leave us feeling discouraged and alone. Do you have friends who are foster parents? Do you have a supportive community where you can speak freely and just let it all hang out? If not, I invite you to join mine! The Flourishing Foster Parent is a community of foster parents who meet online almost every week to share together, check in with each other, and discuss a topic relevant to being a foster parent. Some of the connections I’ve made in this group have turned into friendships offline as well. If you are feeling alone on this journey and would benefit from being part of a community of people who get it, go to Patreon, look under “Become a Patron,” and click on The Flourishing Foster Parent to join us!