Foster kids often carry the weight of the world on their shoulders. These children have often experienced profound physical or emotional abuse. Such abuse is traumatizing and leaves wounds that are not immediately obvious—or for that matter, easy to address. Many times those wounds have never completely healed, and so they appear again when the child reaches a new home or situation.
Foster parents can help.
Becca* came to us when she was just going into seventh grade. I was not immediately drawn to her; she was sullen and defiant. She'd been abandoned as a fourth grader when her mother went on an extended drinking binge and eventually ended up in prison. There were some more ugly details but I don't remember them. To be honest, it feels like once you have read one Department of Social Service (DSS) report you've read them all (they all include unsavory, heart-wrenching details. Probably better to put these behind and move forward). As a foster parent, other activities are more important, such as learning a lexicon of legal and behavioral terms to better communicate with court authorities and social workers. Also important is learning to recognize subtle differences between such behavior problems as Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and discovering strategies for coping with such problems as Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD).
For some of us, foster parenting helps to fill a need to save a child. It's easy to be enthusiastic in the beginning. The trick is to be successful beyond that. Here are some ideas that my husband and I found helpful over the years:
- Consider the child's perspective. Foster children are displaced. Although your home and family may be the best thing that has ever happened to the child in your care, he or she is not likely to see it that way. From the child's perspective, he has just been snatched from home. Looking back on Becca's behavior from this perspective I can better understand her moodiness and defiance. She missed her pets. She was angry, frightened and felt guilty that she had let her mother down in her time of need. It's a very difficult time for kids in this position, and a little empathy goes a long way.
- Permit the child to feel normal emotions. Many foster children are dealing with feelings of anger, guilt, frustration and sadness, to name a few. Emotions are good and it's OK to feel them, even anger. Unfortunately, many foster kids have had poor role models when it comes to expressing emotions such as anger in an effective way. Your foster child is likely to need some help talking about his or her emotions and finding ways to distinguish them.
- Make birthdays special. Many foster kids have not had great birthdays. Becca was absolutely speechless when we made her a red velvet cake with butter cream frosting, topped with 12 candles. Although she never admitted it, I am suspicious that our birthday cake was her first. There are many simple and inexpensive ways to make a birthday special.
- Celebrate small achievements. For many foster children, just finding matching socks may be a milestone. Be prepared to offer praise for a job well done, even a small one. Becca had trouble with fighting at school. Eventually she began to look forward to the daily acknowledgment we offered when she made it through an entire school day without being sent to the principal's office.
Each of these suggestions is relatively simple and each opens the doors for a lot of creative thought. Being a foster parent is far from easy work. Some foster kids will bond with you and some won't. Becca went to live with her an aunt in another state and we hear from her occasionally. She graduated from high school and went to community college. I like to think we helped.
*Becca is a fictionalized version of a foster child. She has many characteristics of kids we've worked with as foster parents.
About Dr. Meg English
Meg English is a career teacher. She has taught International Baccalaureate classes, college composition and specializes in non-traditional gifted learners. She has written extensively on education, schools and parenting. Meg has an Ed.D. in Educational Leadership and an M.S. in history. She and her husband, author John English, are the parents of two adopted boys and several foster children. They live in Belle Fourche, South Dakota within a few hours of their 6 grandchildren.