My Talking Points for National Adoption Day 2020

We were “nominated” (for lack of a better word) by one of our kids’ former case managers to be this year’s “Feature Family” for King County, WA’s 19th Annual National Adoption Day ceremony, held yesterday via Zoom. Before accepting the opportunity, I spoke with all of my kids and asked them if this was something they wanted to do. Four of our five kids wanted to do it, and the one who didn’t was fine with us doing it and talking about him—he just didn’t want to be on camera. So we said “yes” and prepared for the event.

Ahead of time, one of the planners asked me to respond to two questions. I wrote out my thoughts but failed to ask how long they wanted us to present, and when the time came, after some family banter and silliness, I only got through two of my bullet points! Since this is something I think about a lot, I thought I’d go ahead and share everything I had planned to say here.

Q. What made you decide in adopting from foster care?  Why are you adopting today?

A. When we became aware of the thousands of children in foster care, we decided to be foster parents instead of starting a family the more traditional way. We have always gone about foster parenting as supporting reunification, but being open to adoption if/when reunification was not an option. We have had children who were reunified, children who went on to other foster homes where they were either reunified or adopted, and we have adopted our five. (We finalized our last two adoptions in March and April of this year.)

Q. What have you learned from the experience of opening your home to a child for adoption?

A. We have learned… 

  • that every child has incredible potential to thrive once their world becomes less chaotic and more predictable and consistent. 
  • that trauma affects every child who is in foster care, from the tiniest baby to the teen ready to age out. 
  • that you have to be patient and committed for the long haul. Healing takes time—years—and you can’t rush it. You have to keep showing up for your kids, meeting them where they’re at, getting them the resources they need (like counselors, therapy, etc.) and being there for them through thick and thin.
  • that every child needs to know their story and have access to their birth parents, even if just through pictures or stories. No matter how young they are when they are adopted, they will be curious about where and who they came from. We need to give them total freedom and permission to talk about their birth family, ask questions, and even express their desire to be back with them. We cannot badmouth or feel threatened by them. We have to understand that it is perfectly reasonable that a child would miss their mom and wish they could be with her.
  • that foster parents need to do their homework and learn about how trauma affects children. Read books, follow podcasts and blogs by adult adoptees. Don’t be ignorant to how this affects your kids. Don’t expect them to “just get over it.”
  • that the stresses of foster parenting can be hard on a marriage. Make sure you have good “marriage self care” and open communication. It only works if both spouses are 100% on board. 
  • that you need other foster parent friends. You need to have friends who understand the particular trials and triumphs of foster parenting. A support group or just a few other foster parents need to be part of your community.
  • that, if you are a transracial foster or adoptive parent, you need to make sure that you have other people of color in your life so that your foster child is not the only person of color in your life. If you are a transracial foster or adoptive parent, you need to understand that being the only child of color in a white house (which is how transracial adoption usually looks, though not always) is it’s own unique trauma. Get educated and do the hard work to address the fact that it’s very hard for children of color to be raised in white homes, from elementary school on.
  • that the children are the heroes of foster care—not foster or adoptive parents. They are incredible and deserve the very best in life. We have the unique opportunity to step into their lives and offer unconditional love and support and a nurturing environment to help them thrive. They did not ask to be in foster care. They did not ask to be placed with us. We need to show a lot of grace to them and reiterate their worth to them over and over. We need to make sure they know that they are more than “a foster kid” or, once they are adopted, more than their foster care story. They are smart, fun, talented, competent people who have infinite value and a bright and beautiful future.

My husband tried to chime in as well, but we got cut off before he was able to say his piece. So I’ll share it here: we also want to acknowledge the social workers who labored tirelessly on behalf of our kids throughout their cases. We have had wonderful case managers who went many extra miles in order to ensure our kids (their kids!) had the best possible shot at a good life, despite all odds. They advocated, championed, and supported the kids at every turn, and we are so grateful for their hard work.

# # #

You may have seen this on Instagram already, but it bears repeating:

The main thing I hoped to communicate is that every child has incredible potential to thrive once their world becomes less chaotic and more predictable and consistent, and that adoption is always a combination of gratitude & grief. Sometimes you’ll feel more of one than the other, but, even in the best of adoption stories, both emotions are present in some measure.

Adoption is fundamentally a thing that exists because of tragedy. There is not a single adoption story that does not start with grief. Children should not have to be separated from their parents. It’s not how things are supposed to be.

But sometimes, it’s necessary. Parents have addiction and mental illness that makes it impossible for them to raise their children. Parents sometimes, tragically, abuse their children (or allow them to be abused by others) and can’t reform. Parents sometimes die.

And when that happens, and children need someplace solid to land, adoption is a means for them to find the love, stability, consistency, and safety every child needs in order to thrive.

Adoption Day is a happy day for many—primarily adoptive parents—but, for children, at its best, it is happy-with-an-ache. Happy-and-sad. Happy, but…

And our kids need to know that it is OK—no, more that OK, that is right and good and healthy—that they can hold both emotions at once. They need to be able to talk about their story. They need to know that they can talk about the sad parts (if they want to, and some don’t) even as they celebrate the happy parts.

So, Happy* Adoption Day!

*with an ache

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

4 Tips for Encouraging Good Relationships Between Your Kids and Your Foster Kids

Click here to watch this content on YouTube.

One of the most common inquiries I receive from prospective foster parents is a request for advice on how to help prepare existing children in a home (i.e. their biological children) to welcome a foster child into their home and become a fostering family. There is a lot to say about that, and I would love to some day work with my children to create a resource that would address this important topic. However, for now, there are four simple (but important) things I’ve learned over the years that play a significant role in helping create a peaceful-ish environment for all of the children in our home—those who share our last name, and those who don’t.

First, this may sound strange, but hear me out: I have learned to never give my foster children my own children’s hand-me-down clothes and to never give my existing children my foster child’s hand-me-down clothes or toys. It took me two times of getting it wrong to figure this one out, but once I did, it made perfect sense.

First, from the existing child’s perspective: when a new foster child enters our home, he or she gets a lot of attention right off the bat, which can feel threatening to existing children. They know their “place” in the family system, and that position is disrupted with the addition of a new child. This causes the existing child to sense a threat and react accordingly. When my child sees a new foster child wearing his or her clothes (even clothes that they have long-since outgrown), it reinforces the threat.

It’s just not worth it.

When your child outgrows his or her clothes, donate them or sell them at a consignment shop. Then hit your local thrift stores, Buy Nothing/Freecycle group, Target, or Old Navy and get them what they need.

By the same token, if your foster child comes with clothes that they outgrow, do not put those clothes on your younger child. Your foster child comes into your home with very little of what’s “theirs.” They already have a social disadvantage among the other children in the home. Don’t add to it by putting what was theirs on your child. Even if the clothes don’t fit them anymore, I have found that it is very hard for a foster child to see his clothes on your child. Just pack up his clothes, return it to his mom or keep it for when they reunify and she can decide what to do with it, or you can give it to his case manager, who can then save it or donate it for other kids in care.

The bottom line is, don’t do hand-me-downs. Let each child have his or her own clothes. This does not have to be expensive. I do most of my clothes shopping at thrift stores or get hand-me-downs from friends and Buy Nothing. In truth, I spend very little on clothes. But the important thing is that the clothes are new to them.

The only caveat is if your child or your foster child suggests sharing their clothes. If they suggest it and want to do it, go for it. I witnessed a very sweet exchange between our six-year-old foster son and our four-year-old son when the older child offered the younger one his tee shirt, which had grown too small for him. It worked because it was his idea. He was empowered by the fact that he made the decision of what to do with something that was his. But it doesn’t work when I decide for him.

Secondly, do whatever it takes to have one-on-one time with each of your children every day. When I say “each of your children,” I mean every child living under your roof. In Positive Parenting Solutions (and in our home), we call it “Special Time.”

Special Time is defined as one-on-one time between a parent and child, ideally for 15 minutes twice a day. In our house, this looks like any of the following:

  • Reading books at bedtime
  • Playing a board game or a card game
  • Playing with my hair (one child in particular just loves to play with hair!)
  • Sitting on the couch and talking about whatever the child wants to discuss
  • Looking at pictures together on my computer
  • Taking the dog for a walk together
  • Bringing their allowance money to the thrift store (there are two very close to our house) or Dollar Tree or Walgreens and letting them buy something of their choosing
  • Going out for breakfast, lunch, or ice cream, just the two of us
  • Watching gymnastics or dance class (as opposed to dropping the child off, or staying and reading a book or scrolling Facebook while they’re in class. This only counts as Special Time if, when the child looks over to see if you’re watching, you are watching.
  • Playing with Hot Wheels (building the tracks, making up stories for the cars)
  • Playing with LEGOs

A few key points about Special Time are these:

  • You are completely focused on the child. No phones, no scrolling Facebook, just total attention on your child for at least fifteen minutes or so.
  • The child leads the activity (within reason). The child chooses the activity, and you play according to the child’s rules. For example, I have one child who really likes to play games, but only when he wins. He gets very emotional when he loses. During Special Time, if he wants to change the rules so he wins every time, I let him. Normally, we reinforce being a good sport, win or lose, but the whole point of Special Time is not to build character, it’s to connect in a positive way with your child. (I said “within reason” because sometimes a child wants to go out for ice cream, but I only have fifteen minutes, so we need to choose an activity at home that we can do within fifteen minutes. Other times, I have flexibility to be gone a half hour for an ice cream.)
  • You are looking at your child as much as possible, and they are looking at you. Kids crave our attention and positive reactions as much as they crave food and air. Let them have it. I’m going to write more about the importance of gazing between you and your child, but for now, I’ll simply say, it’s important that they see you looking at them with affection and delight. Will you always feel affection and delight? Nope. But something wonderful happens over time when you are intentional about looking at your child in the face and letting them see you enjoying them. So dig deep on those days it’s a little harder to do, and make it happen. When I’m watching my daughter’s gymnastics class, the pull to check my phone or try to catch up on seminary reading is strong. But I know it is so important to her that she sees me watching her and giving her a smile and “thumbs up” when she checks in with me, so I resist.

Next, do not compare children or hold one child up as the example for others to follow. All this accomplishes is embittering children toward one another. That’s not to say we shouldn’t acknowledge when a child is showing cooperation or behaving well. I often look one of my children in the eyes and say, “Thank you for doing what I asked the first time I asked. I really appreciate your cooperation!” But don’t say, “Look at how well Jimmy did what I asked. I wish everyone was more like Jimmy!” You’re not doing Jimmy any favors with comments like that, and you’ll probably spark some resentment in the other kids too.

Finally, play with all the kids together. I’ll be straight with you: my kids fight a lot. Some mornings, it starts as soon as more than one is awake. There is a lot of competition and vying for attention in our house. But over the years, the fighting has been increasingly tempered by times of playing well together and genuinely enjoying one another, and I think a big part of that is thanks to the times we jump in and play with all of them together. Hide and Seek, LEGOs, Hot Wheels, board games, etc. are all more peaceful when my husband and/or I are involved.

Sometimes it’s about modeling healthy social dynamics: taking turns, celebrating when the other person wins, that kind of thing. But other times we’re able to help a child who struggles to regulate their emotions recognize the warning signs in time to catch a major meltdown, or to coach a child into showing mercy rather than revenge. Not always, of course, but sometimes!

A lot could be said about how to help encourage a symbiotic dynamic between existing children in a home and new children who come in through foster care. However, for me, these four simple things play a significant role in helping create an environment for all of the children in your home—those who share your last name, and those who don’t—to live at peace and develop genuine affection for one another.

If you are a foster parent, what would you add to this list? What are some ways you have encouraged peace between your existing children and new children who join your household?

Photo by Rene Bernal on Unsplash.