“Love at first sight” is often a theme depicted in popular movies today. Two star-crossed lovers see one another and have an instant connection with one another. That’s a nice sentiment and may work well with Hollywood but is not realistic when it comes to foster children. Many times, there is no instant connection with foster children. As a matter of fact, it’s the exact opposite. There’s no way you can envision continuing caring for the child because you don’t feel a connection. However, as a foster parent, you are asked to press on. You are asked to put aside your feelings and do what is right.
Many times, in my recruitment of foster parents, I come across prospective parents who say, “Oh I could never foster! I would get too attached!” My response is, “That’s exactly the type of foster parents we need!” We want parents who are able to attach and better connect to their foster children. After all, they have just come from homes where there was no attachment, no connection, no special moments, very little positive memories, and very few happy times. Our feelings toward losing a placement are not important; the child’s recovery from abuse, neglect, or abandonment is what is important.
Why do foster children need connection?
It is very easy to compare your foster child to your biological child. You may be thinking, “My own kid accepted correction and redirection. My own kid loved snuggle time and returned love and affection. Why doesn’t my foster child?” These frustrations are common and realistic. After all, no one wants to be the recipient of judgmental stares when your foster kid is having a meltdown in the middle of Walmart! Comparisons of your foster child with your own child can be dangerous and unfair. This is because your biological child has not experienced the same things your foster child has.
First of all, your foster child has experienced the loss of a parent, or two. Your foster kiddo may not fully understand what has happened or why mom is not there. Regardless of the abuse or neglect, their biological mom has shown, the foster child still wants their mom! An older child or teen may fully understand and may reject a foster parent; not necessarily because they want their parents back, but because they want their parents to get better. They may love and appreciate a warm bed, three square meals a day, and a safe place to come home to every night. The foster family may make the foster youth as much a part of the family as any other youth. But, at the end of the day, there is an overwhelming feeling of, “This is not my family.”
Secondly, your foster child has experienced trauma. Whether they were physically abused, sexually abused, left alone for days at a time on their own, or were exposed to substances in utero, they have trauma of some sort. Your biological child does not. So, you need to approach your foster child with the perspective of, “What happened to you?” rather than, “Why are you acting like this?”
Barriers to connection
Connecting with your foster child can be a challenge. There may be barriers that prevent you from connecting. But keep in mind that, the deeper the trauma, the longer it will take that child to recover from that trauma. And the harder it will be to better connect with that child. We need to have a better understanding of what some of the barriers are.
– Lack of balance between connection and correction. Dr. Bruce Perry, a noted psychiatrist, has emphasized, “Connection before correction.” The founder of Focus on the Family, Dr. James Dobson, also emphasizes a balance between love and discipline. In other words, discipline can be good, but what a foster child really needs is a connection with their foster parents. Because they never had a connection with their biological parents, or had a weak connection or a dysfunctional one, the goal should be a healthy, long-lasting connection with their current caregiver. For example, rather than putting a child in their room for fighting with their foster brother, consider having them spend more time with their primary caregiver. This gives the child the attention and safety they need while separating them from their peers.
– Lack of a normal childhood. Again, your foster kiddo should not be compared to your biological child, who has had a “normal” upbringing. For the most part, your biological child has lived in one family, in one school, probably has not had interactions with the police, has not grown up exposed to drugs, and has not witnessed domestic violence. For children who have experienced one or more of those things, their functioning is going to be much different. And even changing their environment to a good foster home will not change their behaviors immediately. It will take time to build trust. Which leads to the next point.
– Lack of trust. If you lived in a home where you didn’t know if the adults in your life were going to provide you three square meals a day, a roof over your head, safety from strangers, or proper medical attention when you got sick, would you trust that adult? Foster children have lived a life where they need to be wary of every adult that enters their life because their primary caregiver has not met their needs in one or more areas. That trust takes time. You are just another adult. Why should they trust you when every other adult has let them down?
– Lack of consistency. In a functional home, every time an infant cries, their caregiver looks after that child to attend to his needs. But what if no one came to attend to a child’s needs when they cried? What if they were fed, diapered, protected, and rarely shown affection, if at all? How long would it take that infant to recover from that type of trauma? That lack of consistency becomes a way of life for that child after a while. It is the foster parent’s job to help that child to recover and to give them the consistency that every child deserves.
Doorways to connection
Knowing the barriers to connection, we can better proceed with making connections. It will not be easy, but it will be worth it.
– Avoid daycare. While I fully understand the need to go to work and to earn a living, please consider what a traumatized infant needs: a consistent caregiver who can attend to this needs on a one on one basis 365 days a year 24/7. The sights, sounds, and general sensory overload of a fully functioning daycare may overwhelm a substance-exposed newborn. Therefore, I recommend a single caregiver.
– Use the same babysitter every time. If it is necessary to use a babysitter, use the same one. Remember, consistency is the key to connection. The fewer caregivers, the more that infant has a chance to better connect.
– Consider becoming a stay-at-home mom. Yes, I know this is better said, then done. But weigh the costs of daycare, commuting to work and eating out for lunch against the cost of staying home. Plus, state reimbursement should offset some of those costs. Your infant needs a safe place. Your home is the safest place they could be.
– Respond every time they cry. The old adage to let a child “cry it out” does not apply to substance-exposed newborns. They have already experienced that in their lives; that’s why they are in foster care. They do not need to be fed every time they cry, but a foster mom should respond through physical affection, a diaper change, a soothing tone of voice, or through eye contact.
– Make eye contact often. As much as possible, there should be face-to-face interactions with your infant. This means during feeding, walking with a stroller, infant carriers, or infant packs that face-to-face interaction and eye contact is invaluable.
– Get Dad involved! An infant falling asleep in the chest of a dad is a great thing to watch. The rhythm of his breathing and the consistent heartbeat can create a bond between dad and infant that is invaluable. Besides, mom needs a break from time to time.
– Delay first grade. More behaviorists are suggesting putting off first grade until the child is emotionally and socially prepared. Remember, a foster child is not only dealing with academics in school but also how to relate to his peers and how to relate to a teacher for the first time. Starting school at 7 years old, rather than 6 is not necessarily detrimental for foster children.
– Teach them to play. Many foster children have never had the opportunity to just be a child; they have been too worried trying to survive. Let them be a kid again! Board games, sports, and good ‘ole fashioned tussling with a child work wonders for brains that have been neglected. Remember, don’t just send foster children to play… play with them!
– Teach them a new skill. Learning something new opens new pathways in the brain! Teaching them a new language, teaching them how to bake, teaching them how to play chess, teaching them how to ride a bike, teaching them how to play a new instrument, and teaching them how to read a new book may be all new experiences that open up those doorways to connection! Remember, a lot of these kids were just plopped in front of a TV for hours. Learning something new from their foster parent enhances attachment and memories they will never forget!
– First, let them explore who they are. Of course, there is a natural tendency to want to protect them. But most of what they are exploring is temporary.
– Second, let them fail. They will never learn to make good choices if they are not allowed to make bad choices. Natural consequences are a great teacher in life. Not lectures.
– Third, focus on their strengths. Yes, your teen may have many faults, but they have many good things about them as well. Focus on those things and help them to develop it.
– Fourth, develop a thick skin. Don’t act shocked when they curse you out! They are looking for a reaction. Don’t give it to them! Be prepared to hear: “I hate you!” or “You’re not my real mom!” or “I can’t wait till I turn 18!” It comes with the territory! Chaos and disorder are all they have known their entire lives. Respond with calm. It works wonders!
– Fifth, just listen. Your teen may be trying to say something. Listen without judgment and without defense.
– Next, be there for your teen. It is not always necessary to teach your youth a lesson every time you are with them, just being present works wonders. They have never had that before! Setting a good example, being there to be a shoulder to cry on, and participating in the things they like makes a huge difference!
– Lastly, help foster youth to transition into adulthood. Foster youth who turn 18 years of age and who have no connections often become homeless, become incarcerated, become addicted, or become pregnant within a few years of aging out of the system. They need a calm, patient mentor who will guide them into the turbulent waters of young adulthood. Get connected and stay connected with your foster youth.
One way or another, helping a foster child to better connect is not easy and it is not quick. But look at it this way: if a child who has been traumatized can learn to trust and connect to one adult, chances are, they will learn to better connect to other adults. You may be there at exactly the right place or at exactly the right time to be what that foster child needs: someone who helps him to recover from the effects of trauma.
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Derek Williams is an adoption social worker and has been in the field of child welfare and behavioral health since 2006, where he has assisted families in their adoption journey. He and his wife started their adoption journey in 1993 and have eight children, six of whom are adopted. His adopted children are all different ethnicities including East Indian, Jamaican and Native American. He loves traveling with his family, especially to the East Coast and to the West Coast and is an avid NY Mets fan! Foster care and adoption are his passions and callings for Derek, and he is pleased to share his experiences with others who are like-minded.