Foster Families – How will your kids handle it?

The other day I received this comment from Jane, whose parents opened their home to foster children. She has recently started a blog about what it was like to grow up in a home with foster children.

I have recently,(yesterday) started my blog about growing up a “natural” child in a family that took in foster children. As I became an older teenager, my mom had become a Foster Parent Trainer and would take me to the trainings so potential Foster Parents could ask me questions about how their children might feel throughout the experience. I know that was one of the most helpful times for many new families and I wish it would be a requirement in the foster parent training program. Just a thought.

Thanks, Jane for being willing to share your experience with us.

I’ve often heard the idea expressed in adoption and foster care circles about not introducing a child into one’s home who is older than the youngest child of the original family.  Especially in the case of foster children, there can be very real safety issues involved for younger children, who can become targets of all kinds of abuse.

Another issue to consider is the fact that children introduced to a new family require a level of one-on-one attention and bonding that could be very difficult to give with younger children in the house.  The natural dynamic of “birth order” becomes disrupted, with younger children (and even older ones) responding negatively to the usurper of the parents’ attentions.

Of course, there are exceptions to every “rule.”  Perhaps yours is one of them. What has been your experience?

Ghosts and Superheros: How Children Cope with Loss and Grief

shadowRecently Christopher has been preoccupied with ghosts (thanks in part to his older brother, who in typically older brother style regaled his little brother with horrific stories of things that creep and bump in the night). We’ve talked to him about the guardian angels, who protect him through the night. But the imagination is a powerful thing, and several times Christopher has wound up in our room (on the floor in a sleeping bag).

His preoccupation with ghosts and superheros borders on the obsessive, I think … and yet, I hear that this is not uncommon with children who have experienced trauma. It’s part of the way they process what has happened. For Christopher, the superheros (such as his Pokemon DS) provide a distraction and escape from Big Feelings that just won’t quit.

I recently came across this article that describes the “Basic Ph Model” for how children cope with ongoing trauma and stress. This would have real applications for children who have experienced a real — and not just anticipated — loss. Many foster and adopted children would fall in this category, as well as children who has lost a parent through death or estrangement through divorce.

The article describes the six “copying styles” most frequently used by children, which include:

*  Beliefs (drawing comfort from their family’s religious and cultural values, especially through meaningful ceremonies)

*  Affects (venting feelings and emotions, often by talking with a trusted adult)

*  Social (seeking support and comfort from friends and extended social network)

*  Imagination (processing feelings through creative outlets such as drawing, play therapy, creative writing, etc.)

*  Cognitive (processing through problem solving and planning safety contingencies)

*  Physiological (physical activity as a way of providing a welcome distraction, giving the child a “break”)

Author Frank Zenere observes about this last strategy: “Directed physical activity has a dual benefit, allowing necessary buffer time and permitting informal processing of traumatic experiences to occur in a non-threatening format. Opportunities for formal and informal physical activities should be abundant.”

One of the hardest things any parent can do is help a child navigate the uncertain currents of loss and trauma. However, knowing what to look for — and how to adjust our approach to accommodate the needs of a particular child — can make all the difference.

6 Things to Know Before Becoming a Foster Parent

carriecraftCarrie Craft at About has a lot of helpful, practical advice about all aspects of adoption and foster parenting. If you aren’t already familiar with her site, I suggest you check it out!

Today I came across this article, “Six Things to Know Before Becoming a Foster Parent”. Lots of good, basic information about the logistics of foster parenting. If you’re contemplating foster parenting and aren’t sure where to begin, this article may help!

Playground Politics: Conflict Evasion for Kids

Foster kids often have deep-rooted feelings of “I’m on my own, gotta take care of myself” that do not resolve themselves easily. Some kids manifest these feelings with aggression and bullying; others withdraw and become extremely passive, fearful to stand up for themselves. My children are on the two ends of this spectrum — even five years later.

Sarah tends to respond to new situations with suspicion, and hates it when she feels people are looking at her. She gets downright ornery — and sometimes aggressive, kicking or striking out. With Sarah, I’ve tried to coach her to make friends by smiling and saying hello, instead of scowling and verbally resisting the interaction. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. “Sweet Sarah” is a cute and engaging child, and when she gets really ornery I remind myself (and anyone else who needs the reminder) that her reaction is instinctive, not rational. Most of the time, a gentle reminder works.

Christopher, on the other hand, tends to shy away from conflict to the point that — without a little coaching — he could become a target for bullies (including, unfortunately, his sister).  And so when I found him on the playground the other day, crying that a bigger kid (whom he could not or would not name) punched him in the nose, we talked about the best way to prevent something like this from happening again. In a nutshell, it’s a kid-sized version of self-defense. 

3 Steps to Evade Conflict

(1) Assume “courage stance,” feet firmly planted and direct eye contact, holding up a “stop sign” hand. Say (loudly and clearly), “Leave me alone. You’re bugging me.”

(2) State nature of problem — loudly, so other kids and (hopefully) the teacher hears it: “Picking on little kids is not OK, and you are going to be in big trouble if you don’t stop.”

(3) If the kid (or a group of kids) corners you, it’s okay to defend yourself. Tell them you don’t want to fight and walk away, if you can. If you can’t, yell “Get away from me!” and let him have it. Best places to punch: balled-up palm to nose, or if he pins your arms, a swift kick between the legs, or stomp his ankle. Then get away and tell the teacher as fast as you can.

Some parents swear by a class in martial arts to build self-confidence, and that may be an option for you — especially if your child come with a history of abuse or neglect, such that his “boundaries” are not intact. In the meantime, giving your child a few skills may make the difference between him becoming a target … or a leader.

“Don’t Be Weird, Mom!”

(This is a continuation of the series of articles reflecting on Come Be My Light and the spiritual motherhood of Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, patron of adoptive and foster families, which I began earlier this year. For the original post, click the title.)

Sarah is an extraordinary walking paradox. She will parade around the house (and in public as often as I let her) with a mind-blowing array of fashion statements:
I applaud her budding confidence (insofar as it does not exceed the bounds of propriety). What puzzles me is that if I do anything the least bit unconventional … breaking into an impromptu chorus of “Sunrise, Sunset” and a little softshoe while I’m washing dishes, say, Sarah will invariably give me her stock response:
“Don’t be weird, Mom! People will think you’re weird!”

To which I respond, “Let them! The only thing that really matters is what God thinks of me, what I think of myself … and, to a different degree, what my family thinks about me.”
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not someone who typically flouts social convention on a whim. I love high teas and ballroom dancing and all manner of things traditional (it’s part of why I’m Catholic!). But when it comes to deciding standards of personal conduct, I learned a long time ago that “going with the crowd” is not always the wisest course of action.

This has a particular application to foster and adoptive parents. More than most parents, our children are going to have special emotional and other challenges that are going to make other people’s eyebrows go up with alarming frequency, especially in the beginning.

It happened the time my son punched the priest in the breadbasket for reaching out to bless him at Mass. And the following week, when my son (who had been hearing about his friend “Father Will” all week) greeted the elderly priest by patting the front of the man’s vestments as high as his two-year-old hands could reach. Come to think of it, it was right around the time of the scandals, too…

It happened the time my daughter drew a picture of her daddy in bed with her for the counselor (Craig has a nightly ritual of laying down next to her to read a bedtime story; the book was strangely absent in the picture). The next time it was a picture of mommy and daddy brandishing a L-O-O-N-G a whip (I still don’t know where that one came from, except maybe a horse scene in “Beauty and the Beast”).

It happened when my son’s first preschool teacher informed me that I was obviously neglecting my 4-year-old son’s needs because he didn’t use a napkin properly, and because he kept using words like “dead” and “kill.” (I wondered if the word his classmates had taught him — stupid — was so much better.)

It happens. And other people — those who don’t know your family — ARE going to judge you for it. Get ready for it … the disapproving looks, the heavy sighs, the hesitance to accept playdates. Get ready for the tons of unsolicited advice from grandparents, social workers, and total strangers about how you need to be “controlling” your children better.

I’m not saying don’t take the advice. Some veteran parents might give you some truly useful information with regard to managing stress, or potty training. But don’t expect them to understand, and don’t try to live up to someone else’s idea of perfect parenting. As a foster parent (or adoptive parent of an older child), there are going to be times when you need to march to another tune. Make a different choice. Try an unconventional method.

Don’t worry. If it’s a mistake, you can usually correct it mid-course. If the advice givers are real friends or if they truly love you, they will still be around years from now when the fruit of your labor ripens, and that wild little creatures is transformed into the radiant young man or woman who loves God and does what is right.

It’s OK to be weird when God takes you along a different path. Trust Him to give you the wisdom you need, exactly when you need it.
Let nothing trouble you,
let nothing frighten you.
All things pass away,
but God never changes.
Patience obtains all things.
She who possesses God, has everything.
For God alone suffices.
Teresa of Avila

Grace in the Nick of Time

Today I had a difficult chat with the mother of a little boy who had been visiting with us last weekend. Long story short, I alerted her to some “acting out” that I had observed, and reported a conversation I’d had with my son about his friend that sounded to me as though his friend might be being abused by an older child or adult.

I told my story, and the mother (with me still on the phone) turned to her son and asked him what happened. His story did not match mine, so she shrugged and thanked me, clearly taking her son’s version over mine. I was stunned that she would dismiss my story so readily, and not knowing what else to say I hung up and told myself it would be a cold day in a VERY warm place before Christopher had any more playdates with that kid.

Ten minutes later, the boy’s mother called again, in tears. For some reason, her son had decided to come clean and tell her. She was calling to apologize for not believing me right away. Craig picked up the second call, and calmed the woman as best he could.

Later, when he told me what had happened, I felt my shoulders begin to shake, and my chest constrict as the full horror of what had happened the night before hit me. What if you had not gone down to check on the boys at the precise moment that you did? a voice whispered in my head. What if you had stayed at your computer working, as you often do? What if … What if …

The shaking turned into sobs as my thoroughly alarmed husband tried to get me to calm down, pointing out that I HAD gone to check on them, I HAD listened to that little voice that told me to peek into the room. His angels had been watching, and alerted me in the nick of time so that I would actually catch what was going on. And now everything was out in the open and we could take steps to ensure nothing like that would happen again.

It was grace in the nick of time. Not a moment too soon, not a moment too late.

Often I’ve heard couples who are trying to adopt — this is particularly common with international adoptions — who are delayed for weeks or months, or who never receive the desired placement. On one occasion, a friend of mine had actually received a picture of a child and headed to Eastern Europe to pick up her child … only to find out that the child in question had been given to another couple. They did have another child, however … would she like to see her?

And with that, a mother-daughter relationship was born. When I asked her how she felt about taking a “replacement,” she said something very wise: “I’ve been praying from the beginning that God would send me the right child. The first child was taken by another couple, so she couldn’t have been the right child for me. I chose to trust that God knew what He’s doing here. And that when the right child was ready for me, I’d know it.”

These are good words to keep in mind no matter where we are in the foster/adoption process. A few days ago I received an e-mail from a woman who had tried foster-adoption, and had even tried to get licensed as a foster parent in order to facilitate the process. She keeps running into obstacles and delays, and wonders why she is being jerked around when she only wants to help.

It’s a fair question. It’s a good question. Why doesn’t the state work harder to help couples who are willing to open their homes to these children, when there are so many in need of homes?

I don’t know. But this much I do know: God cares even more for each of those children than we ever possibly could. His heart breaks when they cry themselves to sleep at night, scared and alone. Just as it does when that child’s “forever parents” get discouraged and consider giving up just before their prayers are answered.

God always sends grace in the nick of time. Not a moment too soon, not a moment too late. That doesn’t mean that the path He wants us to travel will be free of all potholes or rough patches. Sometimes we have to stumble in the dark for a while … but in the end, the light is there if we have the patience to keep looking for it.

God’s timing is not our timing. But His timing IS perfect.

When Love Gets Expensive

After taking a bit of a break, I’m ready to jump back into the series about Mother Teresa, as revealed in the book Come, Be My Light. As I’ve said — most recently in the last post in this series — I believe Blessed Teresa should be (if she isn’t already) the patroness of adoptive and foster mothers. Today I’d like to share with you another way this dear saint of Calcutta lived a life that is a model for adoptive and foster parents everywhere.

Reason #3: She continued to love, even when it cost her dearly.

It would have been very easy, after receiving the first resistance from her superiors, to shrug her shoulders and go back to teaching her students as a Sister of Loreto. Clearly, the girls loved her; just as clearly, she experienced profound intimacy with Jesus in this vocation — a sense of intimacy that, by her own admission, she did not recover for more than fifty years in the slums of Calcutta.

In the May 2008 issue of “Canticle” magazine, Donna-Marie Cooper O’Boyle encourages mothers with the idea that, although we must continue to strive to find time for prayer, the fact is that the essence of the motherly vocation is one of making all of life an offering to God. This is doubly true for those who choose to raise children with whom they share no biological tie, and foster parents in a special way. We intentionally form attachments for the good of the child, putting our own emotional well-being at risk in the process. And we do it even when the child in question …

* is angry,
* is resentful,
* won’t sleep or cooperate,
* is messy or destructive,
* is profoundly ungrateful, and especially
* makes unfavorable comparisons between her “real” parents and your pitiful efforts (for the record, my children don’t do that … but I know other foster parents have experienced this).

Living with even one such creature is bound to put a fair amount of stress on a parent, interrupting sleeping and eating patterns and generally leaving that parent with a sense of impending doom. Finding five minutes to pray when an anxious toddler won’t even let you go to the bathroom in peace sounds no more plausible than flying to the moon.

The thing is, God understands this. He understands that what you are doing, each and every moment of the day, is being done for love of God. It is a conscientous choice — often a difficult one. The darkness closes in, the pressure builds … and still, you take a deep breath and (miracle of miracles) find it in your heart to pick up that little bundle of snot and dirt and hug him (gently) while you both cry a little, then go for a ride on the swing.

There now, don’t you feel better?

The single most important lesson I picked up from CBML is that one needn’t feel close to God, or even feel particularly loving, to be love to a suffering soul. “Love Jesus, and take what He gives you with a big smile.” If your heart isn’t singing, detach from it a bit and paste that look of motherly serenity on your face. Act as though you have the grace … and the rest will follow.

Adoptive Family Planning: A Wise Choice

Today on the adoptive parent channel of “Café Mom,” a story was posted about an adoption gone terribly, horribly wrong: A Dutch couple living in Hong Kong, who had adopted a South Korean infant, decided to “return” the little girl (now seven years old) to the orphanage where they had found her. Claiming that the little girl had not adapted well to their culture, they decided to “return” the little girl soon after her mother became pregnant (they had been told she could not conceive).

Reading the story, I was reminded that people with limited adoption experience tend to paint both the adoption process and adoptive parenting in black-and-white terms: overly sentimental on one hand, overly critical on the other. In reality, both the people and the process tend to be far more complex. In the example above, the press vilified the Dutch couple, painting them as cold and heartless individuals who cast away their own daughter like so much trash simply because they had a “real” child on the way.

Doubtless the reality was far more complex. Consider what it would be like to be a mother in a strange land without the support of family and friends, married to a man with a demanding job that took him away from home for prolonged periods. You decide to open your heart and home to a little girl in need of a family – and discover the reality of adoptive parenting is a lot harder than you thought. The little girl has needs and challenges that were not initially apparent when the child was placed with you. Still, you persevere, hoping that the difficulties will smooth themselves out.

Instead, the pressures build. The child does not get better. Then you and your husband are ecstatic to find out that – miracle of miracles – you are pregnant. After the initial exhilaration, reality begins to set in. You have barely been able to manage the needs of the one child, and now you will be juggling the needs of two!

Looking for reassurance and support, you call home … and get a series of well-meaning but demoralizing half-truths. “You’ve done everything you could. Now you have a child of your own – your own flesh-and-blood. You’ve got to think of her. Soon you’ll be coming home; if you bring that Asian child with you, she’ll never fit in. She’ll always know – everyone will know – that she isn’t really yours. Is that fair to her? No, better to find a family for her among her own people. It’s really for the best…”

And so, back to the orphanage from which you got her. The dark-haired little girl doesn’t even cry. She just looks at you reproachfully, clutches her doll a little tighter, and follows the social worker back inside the cold gray building you all thought she had left for good.

Now, it is possible that I’ve added or omitted details that belong in this story – I don’t know these people, nor do I have details about the case itself. What I do know is that there is more to the story than meets the eye. Because when it comes to adoption, there is always more going on than can be perceived by the casual observer.

How Could She Do It?

It’s hard to imagine how that mother felt – barely able to breathe, torn between horror and relief, anxiety and a guilty sense of liberation. The nightmare was over, the fairy tale about to begin. And yet, she felt more like the selfish stepmother than the princess. And in her heart of hearts she knows that the joy of motherhood will always be tainted by the memory of the child she failed, the child she left behind.

How can I pretend to get inside this woman’s head, when I’ve never met her? In reality, I can only draw upon the memory of how it felt for me when Craig and I asked the agency to find another home for our oldest foster child, after she had been with us for more than a year. We had our reasons – most of which would not be appropriate for me to discuss here (for her sake, not mine).

I will always be grateful for the couple who stepped forward to love and care for this little girl, who will always be a part of our lives. She is my children’s sister, and she has grown up to be a beautiful young woman – just as her older brother, adopted by another couple, has grown up to be a fine young man.

But how much heartache could have been avoided – how much needless pain was inflicted on everyone concerned – because we overestimated our own abilities and resources as new parents, and underestimated the challenges ahead. It was an easy mistake to make under pressure. I looked into those three little faces, and my heart shouted, “Yes, I can! They need me … and I just know God wants us to do this.”

Again, I know whereof I speak. Because of that, I encourage prospective adoptive parents to assess – as accurately and dispassionately as possible – their own situations to avoid making an impulsive decision they may one day regret.

“Should We Take This Child?”
Questions to Consider …

Among the questions you need to consider before accepting a foster care or adoptive placement:

Have you spent enough time around and alone with children to have an accurate picture of the ongoing demands of parenting? Reading is an important part of parenting, but there is no substitute for hands-on experience. If you’re unsure you’re up to the challenge, consider “borrowing” the child of a friend or relative for a weekend or even longer.

Have you decided what age and/or gender of the child you feel best able to help? For example, some adoption experts strongly advise against disrupting the natural birth order – fostering or adopting a child who is older than children already in the family.

Do you know how you respond – physically as well as emotionally – to prolonged periods of sleep disruption and other environmental stressors? (New parents wanting to adopt or foster more than one child may want to consider carefully “spacing” placements to allow time for bonding and adjustment.)

What commitments do you have at present (e.g. existing immediate and extended family needs, work or educational goals, etc.)? How will a child affect these commitments? If the mother is currently working outside the home, can the family get along without her salary? (If at all possible, adoptive mothers stand the best chance of forming a strong bond of trust with their new child if she is the sole caregiver, especially early in the placement.)

If the child is part of a sibling group, is additional support available to ensure that each child gets enough individual “bonding time” with her new family? Does one or more sibling have extraordinary emotional or physical needs that make it difficult to meet the needs of the others? (If so, is it possible to separate the siblings, even temporarily, if it would mean the difference between a successful and disrupted placement?)

What do you know about the child’s medical case history, including information about his birth family? Does the child have siblings or extended family with which the child should maintain contact? Especially with domestic adoptions, have the rights of both birthparents been relinquished or terminated? If the child has been in more than one foster home, do those foster parents have observations or concerns about the child and his or her ability to bond with another family?

Does the child have a history of abuse or neglect, or suspected history of abuse or neglect, that may require extraordinary time and attention or jeopardize the health or wellbeing of other members of the family? If so, have you received sufficient training so that you will be able to help this child? Approach those with unknown or sketchy histories with an extra measure of caution, spending extra time and securing independent assessments as necessary in order to get the most accurate picture possible. Those with special needs deserve a loving family – an informed, loving family that is prepared to help that child become all God wants him to be.)

Are your families and friends generally supportive of your decision to adopt – that is, are they willing to lend practical assistance as needed? If not, be cautious about making a permanent commitment to a child with extensive physical or emotional needs.

Have you spent significant time talking and praying through your decision, both alone and with those who will be part of your support system after the children become part of your family? Take the time you need to be sure you are basing your decision on the Holy Spirit’s leading – and not just your own idealistic wishes and dreams.

Adoption and foster care can be a beautiful, joy-filled experience. Yes, it is possible to love a child – fiercely and without reserve – who comes to you through adoption. However, the bonding process may happen on a somewhat different timetable. Be patient. Gather as many facts as you can before making your decision. Tune out those who are unnecessarily negative on one hand – or overly idealistic or “pushy” on the other. (This especially holds true to caseworkers, whose first priority is often finding homes for as many children as possible, as quickly as possible.)

Above all, remember the words of Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta: “God does not call the equipped; He equips the called.” If God is indeed leading you to bring another child into your home, you can count on Him to give you everything you need – and peace above all – to bring your family together as He intends.