As the mother of nine children, the grandmother of 39, and the foster mom of 40, I’ve made family relationships my life’s work. Over the years, I’ve written several books and hundreds of articles and columns — most of them dealing with being successful in what I consider to be the world’s most important job — parenting, especially foster parenting.
When my time for actually slogging through the trenches of parenting came to an end, I decided to direct my energy into the organization which had sustained and supported my efforts over the years: the National Foster Parent Association (NFPA).
NFPA helped me deal with everything from the sorrow of losing a toddler I thought I’d be able to adopt, through helping an abused 10-year-old learn boundaries and coping skills, to the joy of finding a teenager who bloomed within our family.
As you’ve likely learned if you’ve been Mom or Dad more than a few months — there’s no one-size-fits-all way to parent. Temporarily parenting somebody else’s child can be complicated, but the basics still apply.
Dealing with Emotional Baggage
Foster children usually come from stressful environments where a lot of anger and little affection is expressed. Dysfunctional homes create stress and fear, which produce all sorts of difficult behaviors and acting out.
All of us want our children, biological, adopted, and foster, to leave our care as whole, functioning adults, at least on their way to becoming such. We want them to have happy, successful lives. Bonding with your foster kids is the prerequisite for helping them through their tough experiences to develop life skills.
Right from the beginning, you can start bonding in special ways. Members of a functioning family bond with each other. Attachment among the members of a family and respect for the authority of parents allows children to grow as Mother Nature intended.
Connecting with Traumatized Children
Let’s talk about some ways to connect with children who’ve been taken away from everything familiar and placed with you. Most of them are probably angry or afraid or both.
- When your caring concern is met with hostility or apathy, remember not to let yourself be goaded into responding angrily. Anger is a normal emotion, but how you handle it models how children should deal with their own anger and frustration. A four-year-old throwing a tantrum doesn’t need the in-charge adult to throw one, too.
- Figure out ahead of time how you’ll respond to situations. You should have been given enough information about a placement to anticipate where potholes will pop up. Consider what you care about and what doesn’t really matter.
- One of the things I’ve discovered over decades of foster parenting is that all members of a family (permanent and foster) must experience unconditional love. Everyone deserves to be loved, no matter what, especially those vulnerable members who may only be within the family circle for a few days, weeks, or months.
- Love in the form of eye contact and maintaining your stance as the safe, competent adult will show a child how to change unacceptable behavior. Demonstrating concern and caring starts when a child is brought to you by the social worker.
- A most significant way we helped our foster kids feel part of us was the way Gary and I referred to them. Each child was always “our son” or “our daughter,” not “our foster son” or “our foster daughter.” Only those with a need to know were told the distinction.
I didn’t learn the foregoing strategies all at once, and I didn’t come up with them on my own. I listened to more experienced parents, especially trading knowledge about situations and attending workshops — a lot of them through my associations in NFPA.