I tried to stifle my exasperation as I glanced over at my foster daughter in the passenger seat. She had run away — again — a few days before, I had picked her up at her case worker’s office, and we were on our way home. After a few moments of small talk, I finally broached the topic that was on both of our minds.
“So what happened?” I asked. “I thought you had a pretty good day, but later that night you were gone.”
“Yes, it was a good day, but . . . .“ She visibly struggled to find the right words. “I was thinking that night about how well things were going and how much I liked you . . . and I don’t know why, but I suddenly felt really depressed. I decided, ‘screw Debbie,’ and left.”
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had stumbled upon one of the most common reasons that our kids reject us. Not all of them will actually run away, but we will see them withdraw and ignore or reject us. It can be particularly confusing when it happens right after especially positive experiences.
I eventually learned that the explanation lies in the nature of relationships. When you start caring about someone, you become vulnerable to them. People you care about can hurt you in ways that no one else can. Traumatized kids don’t like feeling vulnerable. They often don’t have good experiences with trusting the adults in their lives. So, when they start feeling themselves becoming more vulnerable, they reject you before you can reject them.
They also may feel that liking you will be disloyal to their biological parents. Some kids are too young, either chronologically or emotionally, to understand that you are not replacing one of their parents. There’s nothing you can say, other than to reassure them that you aren’t trying to be a replacement. Even then, you’re asking them to make sense of a complicated issue and you may just have to wait for their brain to catch up to their circumstances.
Whatever the reason, the only way to deal with this type of rejection is to just not give up. Understand that it’s not about you; it’s about them. Of course, we should always try to improve, but there may be nothing we can do to avoid traumatized kids rejecting us. We just have to learn how to absorb their attitude and keep caring about them.
We can, and should, tell them that we care about them. But they won’t believe just words. They have heard promises before. They will only believe what they see. Unfortunately, it may take a long time for them to trust even what we show them. But there is no workaround. The only way we can counter their bad experiences is to consistently show them that they can trust us.
So, if your foster child or stepchild is rejecting you, consider that it may actually be a positive sign that they are beginning to care about you. Don’t get discouraged if they turn around and follow good experiences with more rejection. Just be consistent, continue to care about them, and work on showing them that they can trust you.