Dear Foster Parent: Deal With Your Baggage

When I was in the process of becoming licensed as a foster parent back in 2013, we spent a lot of time talking about the baggage our kids would bring with them. Physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, neglect, witnessing domestic violence, food scarcity, being behind in school, and more forms of trauma were top of mind for my class of foster-parents-in-training. We listened to the case studies wide-eyed, nodding as we imagined how we were going to offer these poor children a safe place to heal.

Looking back, what we didn’t spend much time on was the importance of knowing our ourselves, particularly our own areas of emotional vulnerability. Yes, the interview process does include discussions of a foster parent’s history of trauma. A good licensor will draw out stories of our childhood—how we were (or were not) disciplined, what our home life was like, how we relate to our siblings as adults, etc. But for people like me, who lived a relatively charmed life prior to getting involved with foster care, there were no obvious areas of vulnerability to be aware of before we received our first children and the wild ride began.

To put it simply: I did not know my triggers.

This proved to be a significant blind spot for me as the chaos of my days took over. I loved this child the moment I saw him, but I was wholly unprepared for the ways I would be provoked when ignored me, refused to eat the food I prepared, responded violently to any form of consequence or discipline, used the “F word,” hit other kids, ran away from home, ran away from school, destroyed decorations in our home, flipped over furniture, hit me, kicked me, scratched me, bit me, and never stopped talking.

Honestly, the nonstop talking was the hardest part of all for me. I am not exaggerating or joking when I say it felt like a form of torture. And I’ve spoken with enough other foster parents to know this is not terribly uncommon.

There are some who will read this and roll their eyes or judge me for talking about a traumatized little boy this way. His issues were not his fault. I get that—I’m sure I would have judged me too, before I had experienced it for myself. That’s harsh, lady, I undoubtedly would have thought to myself. After all, it’s not his fault. He’s the victim here. Geez.

But I’m not writing this for those folks.

I’m writing this for the folks who are thinking of becoming a foster parent and open to the possibility that they might need some insight from someone who’s a bit further down the road. I’m writing this for those foster parents who are living through this very thing right now and need to know they’re not alone.

No one told me about how this part of it would affect me. No one told me about the ways I would be triggered and tested by the daily, continuous chaos that often accompanies children with severe trauma-related behaviors, not to mention the anxiety around visits from social workers, calls from school, awkwardness with friends who don’t know how to respond to some of the things you’re going through, court hearings, visitation cancellations, the unknowns around the future, and more. Perhaps they hinted at it—surely we knew that foster parenting would be “hard.” But nothing we heard established realistic expectations for how things would be in our home.

So I’m telling you now. Because those of you who are planning to become foster parents need to know so you can prepared. And those of you who are neck-deep in it right now need to know there is hope.

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I remember about nine months into our first placement, I felt so utterly and completely changed—and not for the better. Stress permeated the very fabric of my being, and I was “in the red” all the time. We had endured a CPS investigation of neglect (failure to supervise) when the six-year-old child in our care did something he shouldn’t have. Any parent knows that if you turn your back for even a second, something can go wrong. But for foster parents, the onus to keep a child and those around him safe is on them. Fear became my motivator, which is never a good thing, and since my fear response is “fight,” I was on the offensive just about all the time.

I was distrustful, always expecting the other shoe to drop, and my fear took the form of anger. I took most of my anger out on my husband, lashing out at him or just snapping at him. I had little capacity for intimacy of any kind. All of our conversations centered on the issues our foster son had, and how we felt helpless to “fix” them. Every conversation I had with friends revolved around the stress in my life. People would ask, “How are things going?” and I had no idea how to respond. I was always a bit too honest, because I didn’t know how else to be.

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Part of the problem, I can see now, is that I had no healthy coping strategies. I dealt with the stress by becoming compulsive about organizing and cleaning my house. (There was a period of time where every time my husband reached for something, it wasn’t there, because I had reorganized again and moved it somewhere else. It’s still a running joke anytime he can’t find something. We can laugh about it now!)

I stayed up late at night organizing and cleaning—only to have it all undone the very next morning—adding fuel to the fire of my frustration. I developed the very unhelpful habit of staying up hours after everyone else had gone to bed, because, for the first time all day, there was peace and quiet in my home. I escaped into YouTube channels about home organizing, which only served to highlight how far my own home fell short of the ideal. I drank too much wine, reorganized too much, and let fear of the future consume my thoughts. Consequently, I was tired and cranky the next morning when the kids woke up. A toddler waits for no one to get enough sleep.

I became obsessed with finding areas of my life I could control. I tried to control my environment, my children, and my husband, none of which were within my power to actually control. So I was frustrated most of the time.

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I sat with another foster mom earlier this week and told her all about how much I struggled in that first year or so of foster parenting. I confessed about the bottles of wine I consumed, the hours of TV I watched, the darkest moments of reacting to my kids in anger, the guilt that I carried because of how badly I’d failed at being the model of emotional stability for these kids who had already been hurt and let down so much, and how I was totally unprepared for how “all of this” would affect me.

“How did you get past it?” she asked, and I smiled as I told her about my journey of healing and awareness and a more flourishing life.

It started with medication.

I had two moments of particularly explosive rage—one at my son, and one at my husband—that left me sitting on the floor in tears. After the second one, I made an appointment with my doctor, who had known me for years. She prescribed Prozac, and I started taking it that day.

Within a week or so, I began to feel more like my old self. I had told my husband, “I don’t think I’ll ever feel light and breezy again. This weight of—well, everything—has changed me forever.” But, as I’ve told people many times, the medication “lowered the ceiling” of my rage and helped keep me in a more manageable zone. It didn’t change my emotions or dull me in any way. Instead, it just helped regulate them a bit so I was not so easily triggered.

About a month after I started taking Prozac, I signed up for a half marathon. I was not a runner at all, but I knew I needed something that would get me outside and moving. I needed a goal that was separate from all things foster care. I signed up in April for a November race and started training that day. For the next seven months, I was outside running several times a week.

I began downloading audio books that had nothing to do with trauma-informed parenting and listened to them as I pounded the pavement in my neighborhood. I will forever associate The Color Purple with my first half-marathon, because Alice Walker’s narration was the soundtrack for many of the miles I covered as I trained. I will never forget how gorgeous that November day was, when I stood among the throngs of people outside of MoPOP stretching and preparing for the race. I felt no pressure to perform for anyone other than myself. I was so happy to be there, and as I ran through the streets of Seattle, I experienced waves and waves of joy and fullness. I knew I was out of the pit that had seemed to consume me.

I knew I had reached a turning point.

The following year, I began to address my unhealthy coping strategies, replacing them with healthier, life-giving choices. I had been meeting with a spiritual director periodically, but I really invited her in to my most intimate struggles. At her suggestion, I began exploring the Enneagram and getting to know myself—why I do the things I do, what my “shadow side” struggles are, and how I am uniquely wired to offer my best self to the world, but only if I can understand who my best self is. I worked through a 12-step recovery program with another person, which led me on a deep dive into my own past, my areas of grief and disappointment in my own life, people I had wronged or felt wronged by, resentment I had carried for years. With God’s help and friends’ encouragement, I confronted some of my deepest fears and worked through areas of forgiveness—of others and of myself.

Because I was running so much, I started attending yoga classes several times a week to keep my muscles limber and avoid injury. While I had done yoga on and off previously, it was during this season that practicing yoga became important to me. As a Christian, yoga had always seemed irrelevant to me, but on my mat at the YMCA, I found a deeper connection to Christ, God the Creator, and the Holy Spirit than I had experienced in a long time. Creating space for mindfulness under two radically different, but equally insightful, yoga instructors helped set the tone—the intention—for the rest of my week. I began showing my children and myself much more grace.

And I started going to bed at a reasonable time.

It was also during this season that I signed up for Positive Parenting Solutions*. I listened to all of the sessions, and then listened to them again. While I had studied other schools of positive discipline, this was the program that really clicked with me. The explanations of why kids do what they do, the tools for responding constructively, and the emphasis on empowering and connecting with your kids made a lot of sense and provided a very practical framework for the trauma-informed parenting principles we had been learning about in therapy and at The Refresh Conference and in books I was reading. My husband was on board as well, and together, we began implementing the practices in our daily lives. We saw immediate results, and we continue to go back to those tools whenever we catch ourselves reverting to our old ways. (I still listen to the teaching modules at least twice a year.)

The tide had turned. I felt like my best self once again, I began to enjoy our children more, and our home life became one of more peace, more joy, and a more general sense of flourishing for everyone in our family.

We felt our capacity increase and opened our home to more children, many of whom have come and gone. We have since become a family of seven—my husband, me, and our five children, ages 5-16.

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I’m sharing this because I know there are some people out there who need to hear this really badly. One woman recently asked me, “What can a pre-foster parent, with her own trauma history, do to reduce her own triggers BEFORE fostering? I’m hesitant to enter in because I don’t want my trauma response to hurt these kids more.”

My answer? Talk with someone—a counselor, therapist, spiritual director—someone who knows what questions to ask and what rocks to turn over. Schedule some sessions with a trauma therapist, especially someone who has knowledge of the unique challenges of foster care. I can recommend at least one person who offers sessions online, so if you can’t find someone local, you can reach out to her.

Connect with others who are further down the road, and ask them questions, and listen to their answers, and when they tell you how hard it is, resist the urge to think “hard for you, maybe, but I’m sure I’ll be fine.” I was that person, and my arrogance mocked me when the rubber met the road. Look for foster parent parent groups on Facebook. Join The Flourishing Foster Parent. Listen to a foster care podcast.

And put some time into creating a robust and intentional Self Care Plan, like this one for instance.

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This morning, my spiritual director, Sheila, and I began discussing a program we want to offer foster parents. It will incorporate some of the concepts of the Enneagram and the 12 Steps, and it will be aimed at helping foster parents do a deep dive into their own selves in order to recognize and deal with their own triggers. I’ll be the host, but she’ll be the teacher, and we will offer it to anyone who is considering becoming a foster parent or is already a foster parent and could use some help getting their own house in order so they can effectively help little ones build a healthy emotional house of their own.

If you are interested in learning more about this program, please let me know by filling out this form. When we have more details, I’ll be sure you’re in the loop.

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A Postscript

I am always reticent to share specifics about my own kids. The line between my story and their story is blurry sometimes, but I never, ever want them to feel exposed or shamed because I have opened our family’s life to the world.

My son has grown so much since that first year we were together, and so have I. We are very close and there is a lot of love and affection between us. I could not be prouder of the young man he is becoming.

I share this glimpse of our story with his permission. He knows I create resources for foster parents, and he is supportive of my work. In fact, he has asked to be in my videos! It would not surprise me at all if he speaks out some day about his experiences. I hope he will, even though I know he has plenty of not-so-flattering stories he could tell about me!

If our story has taught me anything, though, it’s that those hard first months and even years are not the end of the story. Part of showing love means showing up, day after day, even when the road is hard. Sticking with our son through the hardest times is one of the best decisions we’ve ever made. I can’t imagine my life without him in it. And his example of forgiveness and mercy toward me in my worst moments is remarkable. He truly is a precious gift.

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If you are a foster parenting who is struggling, you are not alone. If you ever need to unload one someone who gets it, my email inbox is always open to you! Reach out to me here.

New Year, New Self Care Plan [Free Printable]

Whenever I have an opportunity to offer advice to new foster parents, I find myself coming back to the same thing: be intentional about taking care of yourself. It is so easy to get wrapped up in the challenges of foster parenting and suddenly find yourself empty, stressed out, exhausted, and at the mercy of many factors that are completely out of your control. As we have heard many times, you can’t give what you don’t have. You can’t pour from an empty bucket. Put your own oxygen mask on before helping others. Or, as Sufi philosopher and poet Rumi is often quoted, “Never give from the depths of your well, but from your overflow.” Sadly, too many foster parents are just barely surviving the day. Especially new foster parents find themselves crushed under the weight of trauma-related behaviors, unreturned calls to social workers, misinformation, no information, abrupt placement changes, lack of resources, and—hardest of all—lack of community with people who understand the often surreal experience of being a foster parent.

As we finish up 2019 and head into 2020, I invite you in to my year-end process of reflection and planning for personal flourishing in the midst of what is promised to be a chaotic and stressful path. Looking back on the year behind us is a good thing—what went well? What was hard? What, with the benefit of hindsight, could I have done differently? What lessons have I learned for next time? It’s good to sit with some of those reflections.

Looking at the year ahead is also important. While we can’t possibly know what tomorrow holds, if we are foster parents, we can be nearly certain that there are going to be a lot of ups and downs, they will often come without warning, and no one is going to fight for our personal well-being as much as we can.

One area of planning I am doing—and want to encourage you to do—is to create an intentional and robust Self-Care Plan.

This is not about pampering yourself—this is about planning to flourish in the midst of what is sure to be a very, very challenging home life if you are a foster parent. Even with a child who does not struggle with hard behaviors, there are all the outside stressors involved with foster parenting. There’s no way around it: foster parenting, under the best of circumstances, is stressful. We need to plan for how we will flourish despite that.

Toward the end of 2019, I hosted a live Coaching Call for foster parents entitled, “New Year, New Self Care Plan.” In that call, I talked through six “Fields of Flourishing” I’ve recognized as areas of my life that require regular attention if I am going to stay strong and avoid burnout. These areas include:

  • Heart | Soul | Mind | Intentions
  • Nutrition
  • Physical Rhythms of Exertion & Rest
  • Tools
  • Relationships
  • Supports | Systems | Simplifiers

If you would like to download the little guide I use to create a robust and intentional self-care plan, in which I offer some questions to reflect on to help guide your plan, here it is! My gift to you 🙂

There are going to be some really hard times in the year ahead. I hope you have a community of people you connect with regularly who understand the unique challenges you face as a foster parent. It is so important to know you’re not walking this path alone! There are also going to be some wins! It’s important to share those too! No one understands the victories of foster parenting like other foster parents!

I am excited about this new year and how we can help one another grow and stay encouraged as we walk this road that is so needed in our world. I wish foster parents weren’t necessary—but we are, and as long as there are kids in foster care, there will be foster parents who need to keep sharpening our tools and finding encouragement from one another.

Here’s to a wonderful new year. Thank you for reading and following A Fostered Life. I hope to connect with more of you in 2020!

Photo by Anthony Tran on Unsplash