Trust Takes Time

One of the biggest misconceptions I had as a new foster parent was that the children who came to my home would know they could trust me right away.

Now that I’m six years along in my journey, I know how completely wrong I was. When a child has been through trauma or neglect, their ability to trust is deeply affected. And if I have learned one thing in all of this, it’s this:

Trust takes time.

It can take some kids years to feel safe trusting an adult or caregiver again. But there are things we can do, things we must do, to help them heal and know that they are safe and we are trustworthy.

Keep showing up.

Consistently showing up is the #1 trust factor for our kids. When they wake up in the morning and we’re there, when they come for breakfast and it’s there, when they wet their pants and we show up with clean clothes and a warm bath, when school gets out and we’re there, when they get off the bus and we’re there with a snack, when they get in trouble and we come, reminding them that, even if we don’t like their actions we still love them, we are building trust.

When dinner shows up on the table night after night, and we try to always include some food they like (even as we are also encouraging them to try new things), we are laying bricks on the foundation of trust. When they cry out in the night and we come to comfort them, when we mess up and come to them with an apology and effort to make things right (remember Rupture and Repair?), when we show up for Parent-Teacher Conferences, when the guitar lesson ends and our vehicle is waiting out front, trust is strengthened.

Show your children that you see and hear them.

Spending time one-on-one every day with your child doing something they choose is a great way to let your child know that you see and hear them. We call this “Special Time” in our house. Reading books they choose, playing a game they pick, taking a walk, watching a “show” they put together, or just sitting and talking, asking them, “What do you think about ______?” are some of the best ways I’ve found to help my kids feel seen and heard. So are paying attention to things your kids are into and showing some interest as well: Minecraft, rap music, Barbies, and the band Mudhoney are all things I am not personally interested in, but my kids are, so I have become familiar with each of these things as a means of connecting with my kids.

Put on your “Advocate” hat.

When we go to bat for our kids, we strengthen the idea that we are trustworthy. Getting extra help for them at school, getting them lessons in things they love (music, dance, gymnastics, driver’s ed), sitting with them in the principal’s office when they got into a fight, listening to their side of the story when conflict arises, finding them a therapist they really like, advocating with teachers, social workers, attorneys, victim’s rights advocates, and other foster youth services are all ways to build trust.

Reaching out to known family members for information is another way to advocate for the emotional needs of our kids. One of my children did not have any baby pictures of himself, and when the other kids his age in our home were looking at their baby pictures, he was really bummed. I reached out to his adult biological sisters and they sent me a few really cute pictures of him as a baby. We have those in frames now, and he is thrilled. Another of my children has been asking a lot of questions about her biological mom, and when I reached out to a relative recently for information about her as a child, he was able to tell me some really neat things about what she was into, what her personality was like, and some of her personal accomplishments. When a child’s framework for understand their biological mom is that she was a drug addict who disappeared when her kids went into foster care, it’s really restorative for the kids to hear good things about her too.

Always keep your word.

This is huge. Whereas many typical kids can handle minor disappointments or changes of plans, for kids who struggle to trust, if you say you’re going to do something and then you don’t, it’s a big deal. It confirms what they have suspected—that adults cannot be trusted. I have learned to say, “The plan is…” instead of, “We will…” That way, if something comes up and we need to change, I can say, “the plan changed,” rather than saying, “We will do something” and then not doing it. I have also learned that, “I’ll do my best!” is safer than “Yes!” and that kids don’t forget a thing, so if I say I’m going to do something, they will remind me if I don’t. Case in point: yesterday, I promised my daughter she could listen to music on my iPhone before bed last night. Then we watched a movie that went long and the kids didn’t go to bed until well after 9:00 PM. She was very tired, and so was I, but just as she was drifting off to sleep, she reminded me that I had promised she could listen to my iPhone. Even though it was late, and I was “done” for the day, I let her listen to my music and stayed with her longer to keep my word. It’s that important.

Always tell the truth and do not withhold important information.

We had a recent Flourishing Foster Parent Coaching Call with guest Spring Hecht, a therapist and adult adoptee, who spoke with us about how, when, and how much to tell our foster and adopted children about the hard parts of their stories. The short answer is, all of it—in an age-appropriate way, of course.

Our kids are relying on us to help them know their stories. As they grow in awareness of their life, and the circumstances of their adoption, they will naturally be curious and want to know everything they can. We are the gatekeepers of that information, and we have to give it all to them: the good, the bad, and the ugly. Our kids need to know they can trust us to not hold anything back from them and to tell them everything we know of their story, at least by the time they are heading into puberty (if not sooner!)

If a social worker is on the phone and your child asks a question about it, stop what you’re doing and explain what the phone call was about. Keep your child in the loop about his or her case (again, in an age-appropriate way), and if you don’t know something, tell them the truth—don’t make something up. “I don’t know how long you’ll be here, but we’re going to do all we can to make sure your time with us is good!” “I don’t know why your mom didn’t show up for today’s visit, sweetie. I wonder where she is too.” “I don’t know why your adoption is taking so long to finalize! It’s frustrating for me too—we can’t wait to make this official! But we have turned everything in and done all we have to do, so now we have to wait for the social workers and attorneys and judge. Then we will have a party!!” These are all things I have said to my kids at one time or another.

Try “Time In” Rather Than “Time Out”

Time Out is a well-known replacement for spanking in the parenting world. Back in the day, a kid would act out, get a swat, and move on. But when parents wanted to stop spanking their kids, they came up with Time Out. The idea is, of course, that the child is given time to think and consider their actions in a place that’s boring.

The problem is that, for kids with a history of neglect and trauma, Time Out breaks the already fragile bond of connection you’re trying to build. It also send a child who struggles to regulate themselves off to figure things out on their own, which is impossible for them.

Karyn Purvis does a fantastic job in this video of explaining the difference and why our kids need Time In more than Time Out:

I have used this approach with my kids from time to time and it is much more effective than Time Out. Bringing a beanbag chair and some books into the kitchen while I’m cooking dinner so the offending child can be with me but away from conflict has been really helpful.

That said, there are times when it is necessary to remove one child from the others. Because I have several kids, I occasionally have to remove one who is being truly unsafe or destructive to the others. In that case, the child is separated in their room or another part of the house, but either my husband or I go to them and sit with them and discuss what’s happening, rather than sending them away with no subsequent time of connecting or reflecting. The point is to communicate support and regulation and connecting.

Be patient!

This is a hard one sometimes, but hear me out. When a child struggles with trust, he may ask the same questions over and over again, even after you have answered them repeatedly, which can get exhausting. He may obsess over when the next meal is being served or what will be on the menu, even when you’ve assured him over and over that there is plenty of food in the house. He may hover close by when you’re on the phone, wondering if whomever is on the other end of that call is initiating a placement change. He may act out in ways that are really, really frustrating because he is so insecure and doesn’t know what to do with his feelings and wants more than anything to maintain a connection with you—even if that connection is you yelling at him to go back to his room. Stay with him! Remember that trust takes time. It can take some kids years to really know they can trust you. Don’t give up on them!

Take ownership of your mistakes and make it right.

All of the above is great, but what happens when we fail? Because darlin’—we will most certainly fail at all of this from time to time. What then?

I have found that taking ownership of my mistakes—going to my child, acknowledging when I have messed up, apologizing, recognizing the hurt I caused, and doing what I can to make it right has been a phenomenal step in building trust. Many of our kids have not seen a parent take ownership for their mistakes. Many of our kids have never experienced a parent apologizing for the wrong they’ve done. To experience that from us can be pretty radical, and an important step in building trust. (Not to mention that it is fundamental to teaching our kids how to handle it when they mess up After all, when it comes to parenting or any other form of leadership or instruction, more is caught than taught!)

Trust Takes Time

These are just some of the ways I’ve noticed help build trust between my children and me over the years. And did you hear that part? Over the years. Because when I say, “Trust takes time,” I mean lots of time. Years.

I do not do any of these things perfectly. Not by a long shot! But these are things I try to keep in mind as I stumble through the days of parenting children who bring a history of trauma, neglect, abuse, and broken attachments to the table.

What are some things you would add to this? How have you cultivated trust with your foster or adopted child?

Photo by Purnomo Capunk on Unsplash

Barbara Tantrum on Foster Parenting Refugee Children [Podcast]

When most people think of foster parenting, we think children who are experiencing neglect or abuse being removed from their parents and placed with someone else—either a foster parent or a relative caregiver.

But there is another type of foster care that many people don’t know about. 

Every day, over 40,000 families around the world are forced to flee their homes due to community violence, war, famine, natural disasters, and persecution. Unfortunately, many children become separated from their parents or primary caregivers due to death, illness, or imprisonment, and find themselves living in refugee camps, sometimes for years. 

For refugee minors, the U.S. State Department identifies children overseas who are eligible for resettlement in the U.S., but do not have a parent or a relative available and committed to providing for their long-term care. Upon arrival in the U.S., these refugee children are placed into the Unaccompanied Refugee Minors (URM) program and receive refugee foster care services and benefits.

My guest in today’s episode is Barbara Tantrum, who is a trauma and attachment therapist as well as a refugee foster parent.

Click here to listen to Episode 18: Foster Care for Refugees.

I invited Barbara on the podcast to share about this unique form of foster care and to give some insights to folks who might feel called to provide safe and loving long-term homes for children who are currently living in refugee resettlement camps overseas. If you are interested in learning more about this program, visit the U.S. Administraion for Children and Famililes web site, where you can search refugee foster care to learn more.

Barbara also has a new book coming out this fall called The Adoptive Parents’ Handbook: A Guide to Healing Trauma and Thriving with Your Foster or Adopted Child. The book will be released September 1, and you can pre-order your copy using this affiliate link or by going to afosteredlife.com/resources. 

Barbara was our guest on a recent Flourishing Foster Parent Coaching Call in which the focus was on Helping Our Kids and Ourselves Process Grief. If you are interested in downloading that audio resource, it is part of The Flourishing Foster Parent Online Resource Library available for $10/month (cancel anytime). 

I am so grateful for Barbara’s willingness to join me today, I hope you enjoy this conversation as much as I did.

Featured Image Photo by Maria Teneva on Unsplash

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.