Sometimes, this blog becomes a how-to tutorial guide for foster parenting, simply because I am processing my own journey as a 20-something year old mom and foster parent. And I’m okay with that. I am a verbal processor, and I’ve found that when I’m able to write about things, I’m in a good place. It’s when I can’t write, when the words just won’t come, that I know I’m in trouble.
For instance, last winter, when we were in the midst of our first foster placement, my life and my thoughts were in such tumult, I stopped writing. Literally. This blog (which wasn’t even public but had a few followers) was a ghost town. I was afraid to start processing, afraid to actually admit how bad and out of control things were.
Our current foster placement, which started only 8 months after the first one ended, has been a completely different story. Second time around, I’ve found that confidence and momentum that only happens through trial and error. We received a TON of training for our first placement– around 40 hours worth. And when none of it seemed to help or work, we doubted ourselves and wondered, deep down, “Is the problem US?” Now, second time around, all of the training is coming in handy. The communication habits and special-needs nurturing that we were taught are WORKING. When crisis hits and our foster kids are spiraling, we know how to help them out. It’s amazing, and very uplifting, to know that we are making a difference in a very tangible way.
One of the biggest lessons I am learning as a foster parent is that emotion is often the enemy.
This concept is so counter-intuitive. Half of the time, the reason people get into foster parenting is because they “feel” a calling. They can’t ignore the millions of helpless and hurting orphans in their own backyard because it HURTS.
I get it completely. Just take a few minutes to watch this incredible video (which has been named best short picture by multiple film festivals), and tell me you don’t feel called to be a foster parent.
While emotions are often what gets us in the game, they are harmful once in the everyday trenches. Here’s why: foster kids, in large part, have NO control over their emotions. They are almost always at the whim of the deep and dark feelings swirling around them. The only way they cope, in large part, is through numbing themselves with distractions.
But when frustration hits? Disturbances such as getting a bad grade, losing a possession, not getting what they want, etc. don’t just upset them. These things TANK them. The kids fall apart at the seams. I’ve seen our ten year old act like a small toddler when disappointed, and it’s not even like he can help it. There’s a huge lava current right under the surface, and one small scratch produces a volcano.
These eruptions are what make parents afraid to foster kids. They see the volcano and think that the kid is damaged or dangerous. And some are. But for the most part, the foster kids I’ve seen and heard about just have NO way to process or handle their emotions, and they let it all loose. Sometimes, our kids even lose control of their limbs! They cannot process the emotions flooding them on all sides, and they almost fall into a seizure state of sorts.
Even when they don’t “visibly” lose control of their bodies, they are just as out of control internally, and they look for someway to regain the high ground. They look for a comfy spot, and, sadly, the most comfortable thing for them is rejection and conflict because it’s the most consistent thing in their life. Healthy children run to the arms of their parents, and hurt, neglected children run into the arms of chaos. It makes them feel some semblance of control.
This is where a foster parent can get into serious trouble. Foster kids have a superhuman ability to read people, because it’s how they’ve learned to survive. And, trust me, they’ve already learned how to push buttons one doesn’t even know they HAVE. And they will push them, one by one, until they feel they’ve arrived back in a familiar place of rejection and devastation, taking the parent down with them.
It’s not they’re mean spirited or bad– they just don’t know anything else. And once they take the parent down, causing everyone to lose their temper, they don’t feel any better. And the parent feels beaten, wondering why they ever got into this at all. They may even consider calling it quits, a thought that they will try to hide, not knowing it is broadcasting loud and clear.
Obviously, this cycle is counter-productive for a normal healthy life, right? This is why half of our training revolved around something called, “Staying on Your Platform”. There are dozens of things that try to knock a parent off their platform every day, but the key is identifying certain calming techniques and having them handy at a moment’s notice. Our training encouraged us to find our own “safe” zones, and, if we were ever feeling that we weren’t performing at our peak, we were to retreat and collect ourselves before attempting any parenting.
Our first time around, we weren’t able to stay on our platform for long, no matter how hard we fought. The results were devastating for the emotional stability of our family. This time around, however, Jesse and I have realized that we are able to stop the train before it derails. We know when we’re feeling out of control or burnt out, and we stop things, take a step back, reevaluate, and do what needs to be done for change.
The whole reason staying on one’s platform is important is because the foster child desperately NEEDS you to reject their bait. There are exceptions where a caring, nurturing listener is needed, but, honestly, half of the time what the foster child needs is for someone to be unmoved by their ranting and raving. Someone who isn’t phased. Because it sends the message that somehow, somewhere, someone is calm and consistent. Someone is a rock for them to cling to when things get crazy. If the parent gets swept up with them, cries with them, gets upset with them, the child won’t feel like they have a friend– they will feel let down.
I can’t tell you how many times we’ve seen this prove true, time and time again. The times when I think I’m being a caring listener are when things spin off into hellish dimensions of crisis and pain. The times when think I’m being cold and heartless? The child snaps out of it and becomes calm. It’s so counter-intuitive, it’s uncanny.
The cold/heartless approach works especially well for manipulation. Our training taught us to basically be a broken record, saying the same thing over and over, something usually along the lines of, “I’m sorry you are making this choice. I am making this choice, and this is what I’m going to do.” Over.And.Over. I even had to learn how to do this with someone cussing up in my face. Even while I was shaking like a leaf, I was able to repeat the words, over and over again, and get out of the situation.
Don’t get me wrong– there is definitely a place for compassionate listening. But there is a difference between listening and getting caught up in the problem. I constantly remind myself when I’m listening, “This is their problem, not mine”, because it helps my emotions to stay out of the picture. I can effectively listen and help give them words to voice their feelings without letting my own frustrations color the picture.
My sister in law (I quote her often!) phrased it this way– they are on a roller coaster, a swerving line going up and down and every which way. We NEED to be the flat line, the one that doesn’t peak, the one that stays constant, so that they always know they have something to come back to.
Emotions aren’t only harmful when dealing with the foster children. They can also be harmful when dealing with birth parents and social workers. Birth parents, in particular, are definitely known for being manipulative. One social worker said to me, “If our birth parents spent half the energy they use to FIGHT the system to actually work their program, there wouldn’t be kids in foster care.” Letting one’s emotions in can cause anxiety and anger, because there is no control in foster care. There is no definite plan. There are only maybes, surrounded in large areas of gray. Getting rid of emotions over the entire situation is the only way to stay on one’s platform and stay in the moment.
The emotions will be there, don’t get me wrong. And, when not dealt with, they will volcano forth, just like the foster children. I am so lucky to have Jesse and my sister in law, with whom I can vent the raw emotions.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve put the children to bed and cried for their situation, cried for the hurts they’ve been dealt, ached and groaned for their turmoil. But I let it out, get it out of my system, and prepare for another day in which they don’t know I could’ve easily been swept up with them.
It can be done. I used to be an open book, someone who’s emotions tossed them around on a daily/hourly basis. And I still am, in many ways, especially with those who are close to me. But because of being a foster parent, I’ve learned to separate my emotions out of the immediate, and deal with things I never thought I’d be brave enough to.
Being a foster parent– it’s crazy stuff, people. But it’s good crazy. If I can do it, you can do it too. Truly. And you’ll be so much better for it.
My Two Favorite Posts of 2014
Why I Blog About Foster Care
10 Things I Never Knew About Foster Care
Healing after trauma