With the emphasis this month on foster care, we will hear a lot of appeals for people to become foster parents. The pull to provide a family to children who need one is strong, but parenting traumatized children can be difficult and messy. Even experienced foster parents sometimes find themselves wondering what they have gotten themselves into.
If you are thinking about becoming a foster parent, you need to take a hard and clear look at several important factors. It is impossible for you or anyone to predict what will happen on your adventure of fostering children. Like any journey, however, there are some things that you can do to be as prepared as possible.
• Be Prepared for Your Foster Child to Be Unhappy
It is easy to expect a foster child to be grateful for being rescued and placed in a safe, functional home. Sometimes it works that way, but most of the time children will resent being uprooted from their familiar environment. After all, how many of us would respond gratefully if a stranger from the government pulled us away from our home, family, and work? In the adult world, we think of that experience as prison or kidnapping, and our kids’ perspective will not be much different. So be prepared for rejection and bad behavior as they adjust to their new realities.
• Be Prepared to Not Take Things Personally
When your kids reject you, understand that it’s not about you. Traumatized children rarely have the vocabularies or maturity to process their feelings, and they often will take it out on the nearest adult. You will be that adult. You have to have the perspective to not take it personally and the stamina to walk alongside them as they work through their experiences.
• Be Prepared to Deal with Biological Parents
The goal of most foster placements is reunification with the kids’ biological family. That goals requires you to work with the biological parents as much as possible, encourage your kids’ relationship with them, and be prepared for your kids to return back to them or other biological relatives. Those are always daunting and complicated tasks. Do as much as you can to prepare yourself emotionally to love kids who don’t love you and likely will leave.
• Be Prepared To Lean on Your Safety Net
Parenting someone else’s child is(can be, but not always is) rewarding and challenging. You will need people to vent to and learn from. Find your support group and build those friendships well before you need them. Also, if you are married or in a permanent relationship, be as certain as you can that the relationship is set in concrete. Parenting a child with trauma is going to test your relationships more than you can predict. If there are any cracks in your marriage, this adventure will expose them. Be willing to seek advice or counseling or whatever you need to keep the foundation of your family strong. The two adults in the family need to stick together, or everything else will crumble.
If you are single, make sure that you have a stronger-than-usual safety net. In some ways, I found that being a single foster parent was easier than when I was married, simply because I didn’t have to work with another adult’s opinion. But I also had a strong network of family and friends willing to provide advice, a shoulder to cry on, or an extra pair of hands when I needed it. No matter how strong a person you are, you cannot do everything that your child needs. Make sure that you have a network that can help when you need it.
• Be Prepared to Learn
Start learning all you can about foster parenting from every resource you can find. There are a lot of good books on the subject (including mine), and many good online training resources. I have learned a lot from foster parent Facebook groups. Be discriminating — some groups have policy agendas or a theme of bad experiences that you don’t need yet. Conversations devoted to the bad experiences of former foster children are important for those children and maybe helpful for experienced foster parents, but they may be overwhelming for a new person. Be sure that you join a group that is positive and dedicated to helping each other.
• Be Prepared to Make A Strong, One-Way Commitment
Be prepared to make a commitment in spite of all of the challenges. Children may reject you, but you still need to care for them. Traumatized children will not have the emotional resources to respond to your love and concern, but you need to love and care about them anyway. If the kids do start caring about you, those feelings may make them feel vulnerable or disloyal to their biological family, causing them to be more vehement in their rejection. You need to be willing to be there no matter how much their rejection hurts.
• Be Prepared to Be Transformed
Finally, be prepared to grow and discover emotional resources that you never thought you had. Change is always difficult, and the change that comes from dealing with survivors of trauma can be particularly hard. But you will learn invaluable skills and resources, and your growth as a person will astound you. Being a foster parent challenged and changed me in ways that I never could have predicted, and I will be forever grateful that I did not miss out on the experience. Becoming a foster parent can be not only one of the best things you could do to help a child, but one of the best experiences your family could have.
Being a foster parent is one of the most challenging and rewarding missions that anyone can take on. Don’t let the difficulties deter you from the rewards. Take a long look, prepare the best you can, and then decide if it’s a journey that you are willing to start.