When One Person’s Honeymoon is Another Person’s Hell

Yesterday, I wrote about something that every foster parent I knew has experienced. We commonly refer to it as “the end of the honeymoon period.” When a child is first placed in a foster home, things look fine for a bit. The child is on his or her best behavior, as are the foster parents. But after a time—perhaps a few days, perhaps a week, even a bit longer—everyone settles in, starts to feel a bit comfortable, and stops trying so hard not to rock the boat. Kids begin to test boundaries or just let their big feelings out, parents grow irritable and impatient, and pretty soon, a storm is brewing.

Obviously, I write from the foster parent’s point-of-view; I’m a foster parent.

But what if we try to see things from the perspective of the child in foster care?

It occurred to me last night that calling this period of time “a honeymoon period” is a misnomer.

A real honeymoon involves two people who chose to be together. They want each other, and they decided to put their lives together. A honeymoon is positive, happy, and exciting. A honeymoon takes place in a special location both people in the relationship chose. A honeymoon refers to something fun, light, and hopeful—the start of something beautiful.

None of these describe the experience of a child in foster care during their first week or so in a new placement. They had no say in it, they did not choose these people to be with, they had no voice in the location of where they would be placed, and rather than being something hopeful, this experience is terrifying.

Calling their first week in a new foster home a “honeymoon period” is actually pretty insulting, the more I think about it. “Hell period” is more like it.

A child has been plucked from the only life they know, taken from the only parent(s) they know, and placed in a stranger’s home, where they will sleep in a strange bed, wear clothes that are not from their closet, and try to sleep despite the fact that they miss their mom more than words can express and they have no idea what might happen while they are lying in that strange bed.

This is the period of time when a child is on high alert, noticing every foreign sound, smell and texture. “Who are these people? Where is my mom? Why am I here? When am I going home? The food is different, they don’t let me watch my favorite shows on TV, I had to change schools, and I don’t even have any of my toys from home.” Fear, anger, confusion, and more swirl around in this child’s heart and mind. This is not a fun, positive time; this is a terrifyingly traumatic time.

This is a period of time when a child will be on his best behavior precisely because of how uncomfortable and scared he is. He has absolutely no idea what to expect from these people, and he doesn’t want to do anything that might set them off.

It ain’t no honeymoon, from the child’s perspective at least.

We need a new name for this period that is not so foster-parent-centric. We need a term that takes into account what this experience is like from the child’s perspective. We need a term that recognizes that, while from the foster parent’s perspective it’s a positive thing—we’ve been dreaming of this moment for years! We have our first foster child! We are so excited!—from the child’s perspective, it’s a nightmare.

While I will always see things first and foremost from the perspective of a foster parent, because that’s what I am and that’s my lived experience, I’m learning more and more how important it is to at least try to see things from other people’s points of view. As I’ve been reading over my recent post on how to get through the honeymoon period, it suddenly dawned on me how that might look from the perspective of the child living through it.

It dawned on me that one person’s honeymoon is another person’s hell.

Being a foster parent is hard sometimes.

Being a kid in foster care is infinitely harder.

And we foster parents probably need to spend a little bit more time thinking about that.

As one of my viewers who grew up in foster care  graciously pushed back on me, encouraging me to stop referring to children in my care as “placements,” I am now inclined to revisit much of my terminology and try to view it through the lens of a child in foster care (or an adult who grew up in foster care.)

“The Honeymoon Period” is one such term.

So going forward, I’m looking for a new way to frame that first week/month. I’m looking for a word or phrase that doesn’t insinuate something positive (honeymoon) for an experience that is decidedly not positive for everyone involved.

Transition Period? The Early Days? The Getting To Know You Time? The Settling In Period?

I’m still working on it.

I know I can’t change common foster parent parlance, and many—most!—will continue to refer to the first season of a child’s placement as “the honeymoon period.”

But I’d love to encourage all of us to revisit and re-frame how we are describing things so that we take into account the lived experience of the child in our care, not just how things look for us foster parents.

When it comes to “The Early Days” (see what I did there?), the very reason a child tends to be so cooperative is that they are in survival mode. As they emerge from “The Settling In Period,” they begin to relax and feel more comfortable, letting their true feelings show. And let us not forget, we want that. We want them to feel safe and let their true feelings show. We want that, even when it signifies that “The Getting-To-Know-You Period” is over and things are about to get pretty challenging for the foster parent (and for the child!)

I don’t know how many foster youth or former foster youth read this blog or follow A Fostered Life on Facebook, but I would sure love to hear from you.

What are some of the other terms foster parents tend to use that great on your last nerve?

Child Anxiety and Disruptive Behavior

Very important information from The Child Mind Institute, an independent nonprofit dedicated to transforming the lives of children and families struggling with mental health and learning disorders, for anyone parenting a child who has suffered trauma:

rtr3It’s not uncommon for children with serious undiagnosed anxiety to be disruptive at school, where demands and expectations put pressure on them that they can’t handle. And it can be very confusing to teachers and other staff members to “read” that behavior, which can seem to come out of nowhere.

Dr. Nancy Rappaport, a Harvard Medical School professor who specializes in mental health care in school settings, sees anxiety as one of the causes of disruptive behavior that makes classroom teaching so challenging. “The trouble is that when kids who are anxious become disruptive they push away the very adults who they need to help them feel secure,” notes Dr. Rappaport. “And instead of learning to manage their anxiety, they end up spending half the day in the principal’s office.”

Dr. Rappaport sees a lot of acting out in school as the result of trauma at home. “Kids who are struggling, not feeling safe at home,” she notes, “can act like terrorists at school, with fairly intimidating kinds of behavior.” Most at risk, she says, are kids with ADHD who’ve also experienced trauma. “They’re hyper-vigilant, they have no executive functioning, they misread cues and go into combat.”

Read more…

The Foster Parent’s Glossary: AMYGDALA

eqbrain_optical_stim_enI have never studied neuroscience. I was a music major, and later a communications major, so neither focus of my studies involved studying the brain (except for some cursory info on how music impacts the brain). But when I became a foster parent, I quickly realized that I needed to become a student of the brain.

One word that has come up often as I have studied how to parent children who have experienced trauma early in life (from the womb, in fact), is the word “amygdala.” Perhaps you are familiar with this, but in case you’re not, here’s a bit of info that will be very helpful in understanding some of things you might experience as you parent your foster children.

This post from the blog Neurons Firing gives a simple, brief explanation of what the amygdala is and how it functions. In brief, “The amygdala deals with our emotions, helps process our memories, and gets totally absorbed in managing our response to fear and stress.”

This Time magazine article explains how childhood trauma affects brain development and can have a lasting impact on behavior well into adulthood. The author writes, “Painful experiences early in life can alter the brain in lasting ways. A difficult reality for psychiatrists and counselors ofchild abuse is that young victims are at high risk of becoming offenders themselves one day, although it’s unclear why. But now a team of behavioral geneticists in Switzerland report a possible reason: early psychological trauma may actually cause lasting changes in the brain that promote aggressive behavior in adulthood.”

And lastly, this article from Empowered to Connect goes into more detail about the implications of the specific types of trauma (abuse and neglect) that many foster children experience. They offer this encouraging conclusion: “While it is true that many children who come from the hard places have the appearance of mental illness, we are confident from our decade of research based intervention development that many children have “crazy” behaviors which can be disarmed by disarming their belief that they are cornered in a hard place and by disarming the work of the amygdala and other primitive brain structures that keep the child in a chronic Fight, Flight, or Freeze mode. Data from our camp and from our intensive home program provide documentation that our children’s stress hormone, cortisol, can be cut in half in a period of days when they feel safe. In addition, data from our research document the fact that the excitatory neurotransmitters that drive mental illness can be cut in half when a child knows that they are safe.”

I cannot emphasize how helpful this information has been when it has come to parenting children in our home who have experienced early trauma. While we do use things like consequences and natural outcomes to teach our children, we have come to see that no amount of conversation or consequences will affect our kids’ behavior if they are operating from a place of panic (fight, flight, or freeze). They are incapable of being rational or even hearing us in those moments. As we have focused on helping them feel safe and connected, we have seen great progress.