Foster Parents, Fight For Joy

Today I choose joy.

I have heard this phrase many times, and I know you have too. I have it on a tee-shirt. There are multiple books and Bible studies by that title. Coffee mugs, plaques, stickers, bracelets, and bookmarks can all serve as reminders, surrounding us at every turn, to choose joy.

It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? “Choose joy. Just do it. You know, make a choice that you’re going to have joy and then have joy.”

But it’s not simple at all. In fact, if you ask me, joy is often very elusive. In the midst of the pain and brokenness that many of us experience every day, is excruciatingly hard to come by.

But it is worth fighting for.

In fact, I think the saying should be “Today I fight for joy.” Because that is more accurate and a more helpful way to understand how joy comes to us. We fight for it.

There is a passage in the Bible that I memorized as a small child. Both of my grandmothers were very fond of Psalm 118:24 and recited it frequently.

This is the day the Lord has made;
We will rejoice and be glad in it.

Next to this verse, in the margin of my Bible, I have written the words, “BATTLE CRY.” That’s because, when it comes to “choosing” joy, that’s how I see it: something to fight for. When I say, “This is the day the Lord has made, I will rejoice and be glad in it,” I am planting my stake in the ground. I am throwing down the gauntlet. I am taking off the gloves. I am pulling out my earrings. I’m ready to fight.

But how? How do I fight for joy, really? Practically?

For starters, I get clear about what joy is—and what it’s not. Joy is not the same thing as happiness. Happiness is an emotion that always feels good. Joy is an emotion that sometimes comes with a deep ache. Happiness is getting what we wanted. Joy is knowing someone we love got what they wanted, often at great personal sacrifice to us. Happiness is getting out of the valley of the shadow of death unscathed. Joy is being in the valley of the shadow of death and knowing you’re not alone.

So why I am writing about this on a foster parenting blog?

Well, if you haven’t figured it out yet, being a foster parent is really, really hard, and if you’re not careful, you will lose your joy.

I have had many conversations over the past several weeks with foster parents (and people who have adopted via foster care), and the theme that came up over and over again was, this is freakin’ hard.

Parenting a child with a traumatic past is hard.

Bonding with a child you met as a teen is hard.

Knowing how to manage a child who is neuro-atypical because of early childhood trauma
and/or in-utero drug and alcohol exposure is hard.

Parting with the toddler you’ve had since birth is hard.

Realizing you’re not cut out to be a foster parent is hard.

Over the past month, I have connected with people in all of these scenarios. I met a woman who adopted four children via foster care. All of them have behavioral challenges, but two in particular are very hard to manage. Talking with her, I could sense her sorrow—not sorrow for having adopted children with challenges, but sorrow that she can’t do more to help them. There is definitely a feeling helplessness I encounter in my work with foster parents, and I often feel it myself. Foster parenting is everything regular parenting is, plus a whole lot more.

Also in the past month, I have watched a friend say goodbye to a toddler she has had since bringing him home from the hospital. Reunification happened very quickly, without much warning, and on heels of being asked to adopt the child, the mom started rehab and adoption, which had never been their plan in the first place, was ripped off the table. That roller coaster caused emotional whiplash, and my friend and her husband are now, in her words, “in a fog.” For seventeen months, every day began with tending to the baby: changing him, feeding him, cuddling him, playing with him. Now, with very little time to prepare, he is gone.

Another person I spoke with this month was a foster mom whose foster daughter just had “another” brain surgery for a traumatic brain injury she sustained before coming into foster care. The abuse she endured in her family of origin has left her permanently scarred, and this foster mom spends a lot of her time managing the child’s TBI-related special needs.

The stories I could share from the conversations I have on a monthly basis are endless—and I haven’t even mentioned any stories from my own family. Again, wading into the waters of foster parenting is very hard, and if you’re not careful, it will rob you of all joy.

That’s why you have to fight. But how?

Fighting for joy begins by recognizing that joy is worth fighting for. It is so easy to sink into the mire of sadness and helplessness when you face some of the challenges we face. But that only makes everything worse. We have to decide that we will fight. That’s the first step.

Next, practice true self care. I put together this “New Year, New Self Care Plan” for members of The Flourishing Foster Parent a few years ago, and it’s one way to gauge how you’re doing in terms of tending the garden of your own life and soul. It addresses getting adequate rest, nutrition and exercise, tending your relationships (especially with your spouse or partner), adding tools to your “parenting toolbox,” nurturing your soul, and finding ways to simplify your life. The more stressful life gets, the more vital it is that you attend to these six “fields of flourishing.”

Meditate on why foster care exists and what your role is as a foster parent. There are children in your community who need a safe place to be cared for and nurtured and loved until they can go home or find a permanent home. As a foster parent, you are serving vulnerable children, sometimes through great personal sacrifice to you, and with little personal gain. While you cannot “fix” everything that’s broken in their world, you can give them love and safety and a nurturing environment in the meantime. Happiness would be everything working out for their good. Joy is knowing you’re doing your part.

Give yourself permission to grieve. Foster parenting comes with a lot of grief. You will grieve for what your children have gone through. You will grieve for your child’s pain. You will grieve what the decision to be a foster parent has cost you. You will grieve over unmet expectations of what parenting would look like. And, of course, you will grieve when a child you have grown “too attached” to goes home. Learn how to grieve in a healthy way, and make space to do so. Denying your grief or trying to move on too quickly will make life so much harder, and it will surely rob you of every last ounce of joy.

Laugh with someone who gets it. I find such joy in being with other people who “get it.” Talking with other foster parents and those who have adopted via foster care, sharing our experiences, empathizing with one another, sharing the painful laugh of recognition when you can say to someone, “You too?”

Lastly, love those babies as well as you can. Whether they are newborns or teens, love them well for as long as they are with you. Even when they are lashing out, even when they are suspended from school, even when they lie, even when the Beauty becomes the Beast. Love and keep loving them. I can attest to this: I have never felt joy from failing my kids, but I have experienced great joy in knowing I have loved them well, even though I know my love is not enough. Foster parenting is love + therapy, love + structure, love + positive discipline, love + consistency, etc.

I don’t know who (besides me) needed this today. But I needed to write it.

My world has been challenging lately. My family is experiencing serious illness, mental health crises, school disciplinary actions, and relational strain. There are days my head feels like it’s going to explode, as I seek to juggle therapy appointments and calls with the school and implementing the latest behavioral crisis plan. (And this is on top of normal stressors, like cooking and cleaning and chauffeuring my family around.) I can go days before I realize that I can’t remember the last time I laughed.

I don’t want that for myself.

And I don’t want it for you.

If you are a foster parent, let me urge you to fight for joy.

The fact is, foster parenting (and raising children adopted via foster care) is hard. There is no way to avoid the pain and heartache it involves. But I know for a fact that, even with all that this life can entail, it is possible to have joy.

You just have to be willing to fight for it.

Photo by Melinda Gimpel on Unsplash

Belonging, Identity, Purpose, and Teens in Foster Care

When I woke up on February 4, 2019, I had no idea that, by the end of the day, I would be the parent of a teenager. I was not feeling well that Monday morning, so I had asked my husband to take our three kids to school. As he was pulling his truck out of the driveway, I got a text from our former foster son’s case manager. “I know you’re taking a break from foster parenting, but I have this amazing teen who needs to move out of her current foster home through no fault of her own. I need time to find her a good long-term home. Could she stay with you for a week?”

Well, the rest, as they say, is history. The teen arrived five hours later and never left, and on April 30, 2020, we finalized her adoption.

We were not licensed for teens. We had never had a teen. I was completely intimidated by teens. Our oldest would be turning eleven a few months later. But I shouted out to my husband to roll down his window. “Jennifer just texted us about a teen. She just needs a place for a week or so. What do you think?”

To say I was unprepared to be the caregiver of a teenager is an understatement. I had no idea what I was doing. I feel like I spent those first few days walking around my house asking myself the question, “What have we done?” But I have come to believe that is how most parents feel, whether the kids came from their bodies or not. We are, all of us, flying blind—especially with the first______ (baby, elementary schooler, middle schooler, high schooler). So I did what I have done since I was a brand new parent: I ordered some books.

Years ago, I worked as a contractor for Fuller Seminary, and in my role there, I met a woman named Kara Powell and learned about her work with the Fuller Youth Institute. (At the time, I was a newlywed, and parenting a teenager was absolutely the last thing on my mind. Isn’t it funny how all things work together for good?) Naturally, when I found myself abruptly in the role of caregiver to a teenaged girl, I remembered Ms. Powell and the FYI. I ordered her book, Growing With and then, more recently, heard her on a podcast discussing her latest book, 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager. I found both books to be a lifeline, but 3 Big Questions has proven to be particularly helpful. There, Powell and her co-author, Brad Griffin, identify and flesh out three questions that are at the core of every teen’s heart:

  • Who am I?
  • Where do I fit?
  • What difference can I make?

If these questions are at the core of every teen’s heart in general, they are really at the core of every foster teen’s heart. If a young person who is raised in the same home, by the same parents, for her whole childhood and adolescence struggles to answer the questions, “Who am I?” and “Where do I fit?” how much more does a teen in foster care struggle?

If you are considering being a foster parent to teens, my best advice is to sit with these questions and keep them front and center when it comes to all of your interactions on a day-to-day basis. Remember that your foster teen is struggling to find answers to these questions, and she is probably accustomed to having to find those answers on her own. While I am reticent to promote stereotypes, it just makes sense that someone who has had to leave her family of origin and start again in an entirely different household (or two, or three, or five, or…) would struggle. She may be more comfortable going it alone, if that is all she has known.

But it simply doesn’t work that way. As Josh Shipp put it, “Every kid is one caring adult away from being a success story.” Young people need caring adults who are willing to show up day after day, be a faithful presence in their lives, listen well, and point them in the direction of better answers. They may not be ready to accept you as “Mom” or “Dad,” but, they may come to accept you as “Advocate” as they wrestle with their sense of belonging, identity, and purpose. (And, if your experience is anything like ours, they may eventually, indeed, accept you as Mom and Dad, too.)

When she moved in with us, our daughter had a teacher who was a caring adult. He was intentional about investing in her and checking in with her, and did a great job of engaging with her and pointing her in good directions. But he could not be her permanent, full-time, 24/7 “caring adult.” That is the role of a mom, dad, grandparent, or some other permanent guardian. And while it took time for her to trust us, we did get there—one bowl of popcorn at at time.

I totally get why people are reticent to foster teens. It’s daunting, for sure. We have invested a lot of hours in therapy and relationship building, and it has not always been smooth waters; we have had our share of tears and fears.

But if not you, who? In 2019, nearly 160,000 youth ages 11-20 were in foster care, yet most foster parents prefer children ages five and under. That was certainly us as new foster parents; we were originally licensed for children ages 0-5. We had all sorts of reasons for only taking little ones. But when it came time for us to open our hearts and home to a nearly-sixteen-year-old, we began the process of growing with her. As Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson point out in their wonderful book The Power of Showing Up, “One of the very best scientific predictors for how any child turns out—in terms of happiness, academic success, leadership skills, and meaningful relationships—is whether at least one adult in their life has consistently shown up for them.”

We can’t go back in time and change all of the times adults in their lives failed to show up for them in a meaningful way. We don’t need to have all the answers. We don’t need to know “teens.” We just need to be willing to show up from now on.

Show up at the breakfast table with her favorite cereal. Show up for a walk with the dog. Show up for Family Movie Night. Show up with a trip to the thrift store. Show up with her favorite soap or shampoo. Show up with a ride to a concert she wants to go to. Show up with tickets to see her favorite band. Show up to chaperone her class trip. Show up to listen to her talk about her latest crush (or cry about her latest breakup). Show up to court when she has to testify. Show up to Parent-Teacher conferences. Show up when it’s scary and confusing. Show up with it’s fun and feels, for a moment, like a totally normal parent/child situation.

Show up with an apology. Show up with a chore list. Show up with good questions about school. Show up with an openness to hear her story—and a peace to never know the whole thing.

If you’ve met one teen in foster care, you’ve met one teen in foster care. No two young people are exactly alike. Their stories are unique, not interchangeable. But every teen in foster care shares one thing in common: they need someone to show up for them. To be their “person” and help them navigate the big questions that consume their hearts:

Who am I?

Where do I fit?

What difference can I make?

# # #

Photo by Jesús Rodríguez on Unsplash

Book links are Amazon Affiliate links.

How Fun Helps Build Resilience in Your Foster Child

While we cannot spare our foster children from all of the trauma of being in foster care, one of the best things foster parents can do is cultivate a home life aimed at helping build resilience in their foster children. In this and the other two videos in this series, I am offering three things you can do every day, beginning on day one of a new placement, to do just that. (Click here for Part One: Routines and here for Part Two: Communication if you missed the first two videos in the series!)

In this latest video, I am sharing about the vital role fun can play in helping children develop a sense of stability, security, and safety as they adjust to being in a new place (your home).

Remember, there is a world of difference between “Go play!” and “Let’s play!”

Playing with an infant or toddler can be as simple as an endless game of Peek-a-boo or “This little piggy went to market…” Preschool and early elementary school-aged kids love board games like Candy Land, Chutes and Ladders, Connect Four, Uno, Go Fish, and Outfoxed. Likewise, they love when, rather than sitting on a park bench and watching them play, you join them on the playground. For older kids, some of our favorite board games include Monopoly Deal (which, unlike Monopoly, can be played in under fifteen minutes), Sequence, and Clue. And Hide-and-Seek never gets old, no matter your age!

One vital key to “healing play” is that your attention be undivided and entirely on your kids. No cell phones, no checking social media, no chatting with other adults in the room while “playing” with the child. Even if it’s just for fifteen minutes or so, the child must have your full attention.

Another key is to let the child take the lead in what you play. Remember, children often feel like adults are making all the decisions for them. But children have a natural desire to experience agency and to feel empowered! Letting them choose the game you play is a great way to, in the words of my parenting coach Amy McCready of Positive Parenting Solutions, “give them a hit of power.”

Believe me when I tell you: that “hit of power” goes a long way!

Again, we foster parents cannot do anything about the circumstances that have brought a child into foster care and into our home. However, there is so much we can do to help them develop resilience and begin their healing journey, and I believe it mostly boils down to maintaining routines, being intentional about communicating with them, and going out of our way to have fun with them on a daily basis.