This is not a heady article written by people with thirty years’ foster parenting experience. It’s a piece written by a former foster child with 14 years’ experience, from 4 years old to 18. It’s directed more at foster parents of preschoolers and older. I’m writing out of my own journey through broken family, trauma, and abuse. My father left before I was born and my mother is an alcoholic and chose her addiction over her children. I was placed in 3 families (one of them twice!) and a children’s home. I did have some happy times in foster care but the hard times are the easiest to recall. This list is made up of things I wish my foster parents had known.
DO give your kid an emotional vocabulary. Due to their experiences, most foster children will have a limited emotional vocabulary. They’re not going to be able to tell you how they feel no matter how many times you ask, no matter how many ways you rephrase the question. They have no words for this. Many foster kids have been in survival mode for most of their lives, which requires shutting down for self-protection. They don’t get to experience a wide range of emotions that they can name. Help them out by identifying emotions for them: “I know that was very disappointing when you didn’t get called on in class.” “That must have made you feel very excluded when you weren’t invited to the party.” “If that had happened to me, I would feel very jealous of them.”
DO put up new family pictures that include your foster child. Living in surroundings that don’t reflect them at all increases the distance between you and is a constant reminder that they’re different, less than, temporary. I had to leave a foster home I loved because my older brother couldn’t get along with the boy in the family. I was placed in that same family four years later. There was another foster daughter there now. There was a huge family portrait on the wall by the stairs and I would see it numerous times every day. I wasn’t in it. There was no new family picture taken the whole time I lived there and it was a constant source of pain for me.
DO let them spend time alone with their social worker. When I was 7 my brother and I were moved to a foster home with parents who were middle-aged and very fundamentalist Christian. It was an incredibly stressful home. The social worker would come visit and she would sit on the pristine Ethan Allen furniture and talk to us. I was never given the opportunity to speak to the social worker alone. I had no one to talk to. One day she had grease on the back of her leg and it got on our swanky new early American furniture. The mother was livid. I thought it was so funny and I loved the social worker for that. It felt like vindication.
This family employed unusual punishments but at the time I didn’t know that. One night, when I was 10, I had long-subtraction math homework. It was the hardest thing I’d ever had to learn. I sat at my vinyl-topped card table in my lavender room and filled in my worksheet. I brought it down to my mom and I got so many wrong, I was beside myself with frustration. We did this three more times till I was erasing holes in my paper when the tears were falling and soaking the paper. She sent me to my room at 4:30 and withheld dinner from me. I stood at the window and watched the kids on our block playing together outside. I went to school the next day and told Mrs. McDonald that she needed to teach this to me again because I wouldn’t be allowed to eat dinner if I didn’t get it right. Six months later I was moved from the home. My teacher had talked to someone and I got rescued. If I had the chance to talk to my worker alone. who knows how much sooner I could have left?
DO understand that parental visits can retraumatizing. Of course, your foster child can’t wait for that parental visit. But there may also be acute anxiety that goes along with it. There may be fear or anger associated with the parent. There may be the expectation of pain when they realize they are not going home with them. There may be severe disappointment when the parent doesn’t show up for the visit. I hated seeing my mother. I would have to be driven to Children’s Aid Society by a social worker and wait there for my mom to arrive. Sometimes she would and sometimes she wouldn’t. There was one stretch of time she didn’t show up for ten months. The social workers couldn’t even find her occasionally. My older brother, who got to live with my mom, visited me at the end of that stretch. We walked to the playground to play softball. I was so happy to see him until he told me I had a baby brother. Who my mom kept. When I was older I would visit her in her home which was dark, smelled like cats and kerosene, and was infested with cockroaches. I would start to feel sick and anxious two days before the visit and need two days to recover from it, which left me two measly good days a week.
DO give your kid a choice of food, toothpaste, clothes, etc. They’ve most likely lived in a situation where people cared little for their needs or wants. They may have been bullied into eating foods they didn’t care for or even made them sick. Foster kids don’t know they have a choice. They make themselves as small as possible; try to disappear so they don’t incur the capricious wrath of the adults around them. They’re afraid of asking and afraid of being rejected. They need to feel they have some control however little. In that same foster home, my parent made me peanut butter and jelly on wheat bread for lunch at school. She didn’t ask me what I wanted, or if I preferred one thing over another. By the time lunch came around it was a squished, sloppy, sticky mess that turned my stomach. I would either throw it away or give it away. I barely at lunch for four years in elementary school. To this day I can’t eat grape jelly. I didn’t know what toothpaste I liked until I was 25. I hated brushing my teeth until I discovered I love plain old Crest toothpaste. It reminded me of the dentist coming to my kindergarten class. If your foster child is too reticent to tell you what they want, give them a choice between two options until they trust you.
DON’T have unrealistic expectations of your kid’s grades and social interaction. Traumatized kids can have so many deficits they feel like they’re always having to catch up with everyone around them. It’s hard to focus and study and test well and make friends when your family has been ripped apart and your life has been destroyed. High expectations can lead to shame, anger, and self-hatred, not to mention having the opposite effect when your kid just stops trying. I would walk home in abject terror on report card days, or when I knew the teacher was going to call. I felt like I wanted to puke. I knew the mood I was going to be walking into and it made me feel like running away every time.
DON’T be surprised or exasperated when your child lies to you. Lying is a survival strategy. A defense mechanism. Self-protection. Expect them to lie and give them positive reasons to tell the truth. “You’ll get in trouble if you lie,” is not as great a motivator as “Telling the truth will not be met with rage and abuse.” There is no pearl-clutching in foster parenting. Your display of disappointment is not going to inspire them to become a better person. Help them understand what forgiveness is and show them they don’t have to lie to feel safe.
DON’T take away things their family gives them. This should be a no-brainer. It can be tempting when we just want the child to be at peace, to be settled, to not be reminded every day of what they’ve lost. That same foster mother I mentioned above took away the little stuffed Winnie-the-Pooh my mother gave me. It was all I had from her and I loved it. She took it away because she didn’t want me to be reminded of my mom. I thought it cruel and I hated her for it. A few years later my grandmother gave me a stuffed dog radio for Christmas. I would lie awake at night clutching it my chest, listening to Queen, Blondie, The Pretenders, Pat Benatar, and Fleetwood Mac. The foster mother took that away too because it played secular music. (It totally backfired, those bands are STILL my favorites). These objects represented home to me, however harmful it was, and it was taken from me again and again.
DON’T compare your foster kid’s development to your own kid’s. I’m not saying any of you would do this out loud in front of the child like my foster mother did. But it can happen when you’re exasperated. They’re trying to make it through every day without crumbling in front of anyone. At times their deficits can seem overwhelming. Of course, you want to challenge them and expect great things from them. You can compare the day’s behavior with behavior from the first day they entered your house or even last month. Start small. Does he look you in the eye more than he did at first? Does she engage more readily with her siblings now? Point out these things to your child and tell them how proud you are of them.
DON’T assume your safe place is their safe place. I’m sure my case workers thought moving me to the suburbs outside of Philadelphia was a step up. The neglected child living in poverty being rescued from the mean streets of the city. It didn’t feel like rescue to me. I hated moving to the suburbs. It scared me. There were woods at the end of the cul-de-sac that gave me nightmares. I missed the clutter and noise of the city. I’ve written about rescue before in The Mudroom:
People think that when a child is rescued from a dangerous home or family or country, they are overjoyed at their removal and so excited to go to their new home where they will be cared for by strangers and live a life they never thought possible. That’s what we want to believe, that’s how we want it to play out in our imaginations. And sometimes it does.But there is a story happening behind the rescue that most people can’t comprehend. As a child I didn’t know what I was being rescued from, I didn’t know that I needed rescuing, I had nothing to compare my life to at that stage. So what did rescue look like to me at four years old? Abandonment. Rejection. Displacement. Fear.It means being torn from the safety of the “known,” however harmful, and thrust into confusion and despair.
For myself, since family life was such an abject disaster, the city of Philadelphia became my home and my identity, my comfort and my sense of belonging. With no one close or consistent enough to imprint on, I imprinted on the city. Kids find familiar territory a relief from their uprootedness. Ask their birth parents what the child likes to do and where they like to go. Find their happy place and make it yours too.