Every so often, I think back to when I started service as a foster parent and how little I know about what I was getting into. I certainly don’t regret being a foster parent, and the fact that I know more now is a good sign that I am capable of learning. For newer foster parents, though, there are some things that I can pass along that I wish I had known from the beginning.
Love Is Not Enough
When I first started, a common refrain I heard was that “these kids just need someone to love them.” That sentiment is admirable, but too simplistic. We do need to care about our kids, but love is not enough. Foster children by definition have suffered trauma, either in their biological families or by being separated from them. Helping them deal with that trauma requires a lot of information, training, and patience. It’s a long and arduous process that never goes in a straight line. Love is an essential foundation, but it’s not enough by itself.
We Can’t Replace Biological Parents
From our adult perspective, it’s easy to expect foster children to be grateful that they are in the safe, loving home that we are providing. But their minds don’t work that way. They have a deep tie to their biological parents, and it takes a lot to break that tie. It’s that tie that prompts many kids who age out of the system to almost immediately try to reconnect with their biological families. From the foster child’s perspective, we are not the people who are supposed to be there, and if the world worked the way it should, we would not be in their lives.
We can’t fight against this impulse, and it’s damaging to try. Our best approach is to not take it personally, and to let them know that we are sorry that they are not where they want to be. Then, we have to help them develop whatever relationship with their parents that the courts will allow. It’s not easy helping a child strengthen a relationship with someone who it not us, but it is the only way to really help them with what they need.
There are rare cases where the biological parents are out of our children’s lives and we can be an adoptive or long-term foster parent. Even then, we have to be sensitive to our child’s perspective. It may take a while for them to establish a relationship with us, even if they want to be there. We have to learn to let the relationship grow organically and on its own time schedule.
Develop a Network
You will need a lot of support from other adults, particularly other foster parents. I was fortunate in having a large network of experienced friends and family. I never knew when I started how often I would need their advice and practical help.
Make sure that your network includes experienced foster and adoptive parents. Children who have suffered trauma have unique challenges. Parents of kids who have never been through such adverse experiences simply don’t understand the nuances of what you will be facing. You will need the guidance of parents who get it.
Foster Parenting Will Change You More Than Your Child
I did not expect the ways in which being a foster parent would change me. I knew intellectually about the problems of at-risk kids, but I didn’t understand trauma on an emotional level. I developed more empathy than I had ever had before, and I certainly learned more patience. My life developed a new richness and meaning that has stayed with me for life.
Raising other people’s children is the most challenging thing I have ever done in my life, and it is the most rewarding. I understand that not everyone can accept the challenge, but I am glad that I have had the opportunity. These lessons that I learned helped me as I learned and grew as a person, and I hope they can help newer foster parents as you start on your own journey.