One of the most important things foster and stepparents can do to take care of themselves is to build a strong network of supportive adults, including good mentors. Up to 50% of foster parents quit within the first year. According to some estimates, more than 2/3 of second marriages fail, and one big reason may be the difficulties of blending two families. If we are going to have any hope of keeping our relationships with our kids together, we need wise friends to help us navigate the minefields. So make it one of your self-care priorities this year to find your people.
Why We Need a Strong Support System
No one questions the need for adults to have mentors in their careers. No one thinks twice about finding mentors for our business lives, but we somehow miss the importance of adult mentors in our personal lives. Yet, the positive effects are the same. We can learn quite a bit from a supportive relationship with someone who has been in our situation, and who can give us practical advice from the lessons that they learned.
A support network can also encourage us and keep us grounded. I found my extended family and friends invaluable when I hit rough patches as a foster parent or stepparent. They gave me a place to vent and provided amazing emotional support. They understood me, recognized all of my faults, and supported me anyway. I needed that safe emotional space from my adult friends as much as my kids needed it from me.
What to Look for in a Support System
Most of us develop friendships organically, through fortunate meetings and shared interests. Those existing friendships can provide you with more than one natural mentor, but you need to be intentional about adding people who can help you in your foster or stepparent journey. You need in your network not only people who care about you, but people who understand the challenges of raising other people’s children.
Friends and extended family raising biological children may know a lot about children, but they simply cannot understand what it’s like to step into a child’s ongoing story. It’s hard for them to understand the challenges of helping someone deal with childhood trauma, or simply the practical problems of building your schedule around therapy and school conferences and visits with birth parents. They usually have never had to deal with a sluggish agency or figure out how to help someone else’s child through the effects of traumatic events. Their advice is always well-meant, but not always knowledgeable.
Of course, your existing network may be able to help with some of the pieces of being a parent. An experienced parent of teens, for example, can remind you that rejecting your advice is part of the job description for teenagers. Friends whose biological children have rejected them may be in a similar situation to those with antagonistic foster children. But they likely will not understand the entire context of parenting a child with whom you have no shared history.
Certainly, hang on to those existing friends and family who will provide a listening ear. Never discount the significant impact of friend and family support. At the same time, you need people in your support network who understand all the challenges that you face. Foster parents, for example, need to know how to navigate the foster care system and work with a social worker. Stepparents need advice about dealing with biological parents and custody schedules. Look for people who have been through the same experiences and learned how to navigate the challenges successfully. I learned more than I can remember from experienced foster parents and caseworkers who helped guide me through the journey. Look to add as many of these people to your network as you can find.
Where to Find Your People
Knowing that you need mentors and what characteristics to look for is one challenge. Finding those people can be an entirely different kind of challenge. A lot of the process will be just trial and error, but some places have a better track record than others.
If you are a foster parent, cultivate friendships with other foster parents. Find your local and state foster parent associations and join their conferences and other activities. Speakers at the conferences often have excellent advice, and just hearing from experienced foster parents can be invaluable.
I don’t know of any formal associations for stepparents, but churches and nonprofit groups often have support groups for people who have lost a spouse or gone through a divorce. People in those groups often face the challenge of starting new relationships and blending families. Your place of worship or a local nonprofit organization may be a good resource for you to find at least a safe place to vent about the stresses in your life.
For either foster parents or stepparents, the Internet and social media offer any number of online groups, many of which will allow you to post anonymously. Of course, the advice you get will often be anonymous as well, and you will have to be wary of accepting everything that you hear. But just seeing situations similar to yours can be a reassuring reminder that your situation is not unique and that you are not alone. You won’t form the strong relationships that you need in everyday life, but the advice and the sharing can be helpful.
One of the more positive trends in recent years is how faith communities are willing to support blended and foster families. Look for churches, synagogues, or groups within your faith tradition that either have set up these support groups or are willing to learn how. You may not have time to organize a new group, but if you can find people willing to support parents raising other people’s children, you can teach them what those parents need.
A counselor or therapist can be a great mentor. Professional standards require that mental health providers keep a professional distance, so a therapist should not become a close friend. But good therapists can provide safe spaces for you to express yourself, unconditional support, and other aspects of a mentoring relationship. Moreover, knowledgeable therapists will have a wealth of knowledge that they can share about best practices for providing trauma-informed care to our children. If you can find space in your budget, add a professional to your network.
Finally, don’t overlook whatever help your current family and friends can provide. A friend doesn’t have to be a stepparent to know when you need help getting a child to band practice or dealing with school problems. Work on keeping those friendships strong, because people who know you and have your back will be the foundation of your support system.
More importantly, family and friends can listen and learn about your unique challenges. Both when I was a foster parent and when I joined my stepfamily, none of my friends or extended family had any experience with those situations. But I was amazed, and humbled, to see how many of them were willing to listen and learn how they could help. I never found a foster parent association or stepparent support group, but I was able to rely on my existing support network to get through the most challenging times.
Joining a child’s journey in progress is challenging at the best of times, and parenting a child who has suffered trauma can be a whole new level of hard work. Having a support network can be a crucial part of your self-care. As you are working on forging a healthy relationship with the members of your family, reserve some time to strengthen adult relationships that can support you when your resources are running low.