3 Ways to Foster a Connected Family

If you have been a foster parent for any length of time, you have surely learned that foster parenting is both the best and the hardest thing you’ve ever done. The layers of dynamics and stress that go along with inviting strangers into your home and trying to provide a nurturing environment where they can heal and grow, while continuing to carry around in their bodies and brains the effects of trauma and neglect, is no small feat. To foster parent well requires a significant amount of intention, effort, and work.

Flourishing as a foster family does not happen naturally.

Recently, I invited trauma and adoption therapist Lesley Joy Ritchie to be our guest for a Flourishing Foster Parent coaching call, and she said something that was so important: despite how hard it is, and despite how stressed out we can be much of the time, it is vital that we find a way to connect and enjoy one another every day.

This is much easier said than done.

When you deal with challenging behaviors on a daily basis—lying, tantrums, oppositional or defiant behavior, violence, etc.—it can be very tempting to, in Lesley’s words, “consequence all of the joy out of life.” But that is the most counter-productive thing we can do if we want to help our kids heal and grow emotionally healthy. In fact, one of the hardest parts of trauma-informed parenting is recognizing that, often times, when our instincts tell us to issue a consequence for unacceptable behavior, what our child really needs is an opportunity to connect.

I confess that I have not done well with this over the years. I am someone who is naturally inclined to cancel fun activities as punishment, rather than do the work of letting natural consequences do the teaching. As trauma therapist and fellow foster-adoptive mother Dena Johnson said on another FFP coaching call, “We all want our pound of flesh!” Sometimes it feels good to punish a child who has given us a hard time—but it doesn’t help solve the root cause of their hard behavior.

One of the ways I have attempted to address my own weakness in this area is to create a weekly rhythm of family life that has built-in, non-negotiable opportunities for connection. This way, even if I’m frustrated with one of my kids or a child has really blown it, we still have opportunities to connect, whether we feel like it or not. Here they are!

Family Meals. We eat dinner together every night as a family. It’s one of our stated expectations when new children join our home—we make it clear that everyone is expected to come to the dinner table when the dinner bell rings (yes, I use a dinner bell). If you have an older child who spends most of her time alone in her room, this is one way to guarantee connection with her every day, which is vital if you find it hard to wade through teenage hostility (or even just the laundry on the floor) to connect. We always try to have at least one item on the table that everyone likes (rice, baked potatoes, or bread are staple dinner items, as well as Caesar salad, which everyone in our family likes) and we encourage, but don’t insist, that everyone try everything being offered. Sometimes, we use conversational prompts (such as these from The Family Dinner Project) or just let the chatter run wild. It’s loud, it’s messy—and it’s important to helping the family gather and see one another every day.

Family Movie Night. Every Friday night, we have a Family Movie Night, when we order pizza and watch a movie together. It can be challenging to find movies that appeal to everyone, as our kids range in age from 5-17, but we have managed to do a pretty good job for the most part. There are great Disney Pixar films of course, which are enjoyable for all ages, and we’ve loved introducing some old favorites from our childhood as well (we recently watched Escape to Witch Mountain, which I had forgotten was about two siblings in foster care). The kids and adults always look forward to it, and it’s the one time each week when we are all guaranteed to be gathered together in one room sharing the same activity. Also, we never take away Family Movie Night as a consequence. It’s a vital part of building family connections.

Family Meeting. Once a week, usually on Sundays, we hold a Family Meeting. I have written about our Family Meeting here and shared on YouTube here. (Full disclosure: this has been less structured since the time of quarantine began, as we are together all the time and connecting more throughout the week. That said, my husband and I just committed to restarting the more structured meetings again). Having a time to connect with the whole family, share compliments and appreciations, play board games together, hand out allowance, and review calendar items so everyone is aware of what’s coming up in the week is invaluable fostering family connection and a healthy overall rhythm of family life. We see a huge difference when we skip family meetings.

These are just three things we do consistently to ensure that opportunities to connect happen every week. For kids who come from highly dysfunctional, abusive, or neglectful family systems, the consistency of these positive connections works wonders. It also provides good opportunities to model clear communication, organization, preparation, and planning. And since more is caught than taught, we see our kids imitating the skills they absorb in family meetings, from financial management (we give allowance, but insist that 10% go into a savings account and 10% go into a giving jar) to time management (our kids all understand how to read a calendar and are empowered to consult the family schedule when they wonder what’s happening the the week ahead).

What are some ways you foster connection in your family? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

Photo by Stefan Vladimirov 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.

The Power of Showing Up

Two years ago was a real turning point for me as a parent. As I have already shared, it is important for foster parents to deal with their baggage and figure out what makes them tick so they can be supportive and emotionally stable for their children. Two years ago was when I got serious about my self care plan, and it was when I started developing positive parenting tools that really work.

Two years ago was also when I started thinking in terms of being a Fully Present Parent. In fact, I have thought for some time now that, if I were to write a book for foster parents, it would be about being a Fully Present Parent. Being “fully present” to my kids has directed pretty much everything I’ve endeavored to do these past two years, because I realized that one of the things my kids need most is me—my attention, my compassion, my support, my example, and, well, my presence.

Well as it turns out, I probably will not be writing my book after all, because the Dynamic Duo of Daniel J. Siegel, MD and Tina Payne Bryson, PhD, have already written it (and it’s way better than anything I would have come up with). The book is called The Power of Showing Up, and it is now part of my (growing) list of Must-Reads.

According to Siegel and Bryson, “Showing up means bringing your whole being—your attention and awareness—when you’re with your child.” Phone down, computer closed, fully present. “When we show up, we are mentally and emotionally present for our child in that moment.” The authors describe what showing up looks like as helping kids feel safe, seen, soothed, and secure (they call these the Four S’s). When we accomplish these things for our kids consistently (if not perfectly), we help them develop “secure attachment,” which is the goal of parenting.

After a fantastic opening chapter, which serves as an introduction and will sound very familiar to fans of these authors’ existing body of work (including The Whole Brain Child), the remainder of the book explores in depth what each of the Four S’s look like and, perhaps more importantly, why some parents are less inclined to be fully present parents. The authors address the importance of understanding our own past and identifying how some might want/need to parent differently than how they were parented. “History is not destiny,” they write. “Our past can be understood so that it doesn’t dictate our present and our future.”

One of the things I found surprisingly helpful in this book was the series of drawings depicting interactions between parents and children. Like holding up a mirror to my own parenting style, I saw myself in those scenarios and recognized my own tendencies toward disconnection, judgment, and commanding/demanding postures when I’m frustrated with my kids. Just in the past week, I have reflected on several interactions with my children that I recognized in the pages of this book. It is with a heavy heart that I see how I missed opportunities to “show up” for my kids—to help them feel safe, seen, soothed, and secure.

I can do better.

And with the help of this book, I think I will do better.

Another thing I really appreciate about this book’s approach is that the parents are still the parents. Whether one is a natural parent, an adoptive parent, or a foster parent, we must create and enforce rules. Showing up as a parent is not passive or permissive parenting. For example, “soothing” should never be confused with “coddling.” The authors reiterate that they “are big believers in setting clear, firm boundaries for children and even having high expectations for them, particularly when it comes to being respectful of themselves and others.”

Appealing to a growing body of scientific research in the area of child psychology and brain development, the authors make a strong case for the benefits of a secure attachment. These include higher self-esteem, better emotional regulation, greater academic success, better coping skills in times of stress, better relationships, and other competencies. As I often say, when it comes to parenting, “More is caught than taught,” and that includes modeling respect, empathy, compassion, and what it looks like to be fully present. If we want our kids to exercise good screen habits, for example, we have to model good screen habits. If we want our kids to show kindness toward others, we have to show kindness to them. If we want our kids to have healthy emotional regulation, it starts with us modeling healthy emotional regulation.

This book belongs on the shelf (or bedside table) in every foster home. We often face the reality that we are caring for children who come with a complicated history. They usually lack secure attachment, and because of that, they struggle with self-esteem, emotional regulation, social interactions, and trust. Many times, we don’t know where to start. We see the challenges they face (and the challenging behaviors we face!) and feel at a loss for where to begin to address their issues.

What our kids need, we are assured by these authors, is not perfect parents who do everything right. Instead, what they need are caregivers who show up (and keep showing up). “To give your kids the best chance for healthy and optimal development, all you have to do is help them feel safe, seen, soothed, and secure.” This takes time, of course, but if we stay the course and continue to show up for them, we will give our foster and adopted children the best possible chance at developing a secure attachment and enjoying the benefits thereof.

Image: Used by permission via Creative Commons Zero

Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.” [Disclaimer Credit: Michael Hyatt]