In the uncertain and inconsistent world of foster care, how do you achieve the results and positive traction you are hoping for with the children who are placed in your care? The answer: consistency.
It was a warm spring afternoon when we made the long drive from our house to the visitation center. The rules were clear, or so we thought- after 3 missed visits in a row, all visitation rights would be suspended for the birth parents.
“Surely she would show up for this one,” my wife and I both thought. “Surely she wouldn’t leave her daughter waiting for a third week in a row!”
But she did. In two months she had only shown up once. Forget the rules! It was like they didn’t exist. The tears streaming down this poor girl’s face told the story- “Mom only shows when she feels like it, or is sober.” Heck, she didn’t even show when the threat of losing visitation rights loomed.
That afternoon, as we watched this precious child weep silently in the back seat of our van, we re-discovered something as parents- consistency pays off! Doing the same thing over and over creates a rhythm and that rhythm builds trust. This needed to be active in our parenting, especially with the children who came to us through foster care. We had laid witness to the inconsistent, tumultuous nature of this system too many times in the past. Seeing this girl broken was all we could take.
I am a huge believer in consistency, with everything in life, not just parenting. But, I really believe it is essential for success in foster parenting. The reason is simple- there are so many unknowns, and so much inconsistency in the system already. You’re told one thing, and then another thing happens. You show up for a placement hearing expecting some concrete details after a year, but the case is continued..again. You drive the children in your care to a visitation week after week and the birth parent only shows up when it’s convenient.
The inconsistency of the foster care system takes the biggest toll on children and it’s heart-breaking to watch.
This is a system of huge ups and downs. When we determined that we needed a set course to follow, we began to see results. Not overnight, but over time. Consistency really does pay off. Here are some reasons why we believe that’s true:
Consistency creates a road map.
You can bet that one of the biggest things missing in the life of a child, who is placed in your care, is direction. Sure, there are people telling them where they are going next and what they are going to do, like a case manager, or a judge, but those are legal directives, not relational direction, like you can provide.
Their life is already overflowing with uncertainty. And the difficult environment they were removed from was most likely hemorrhaging inconsistency. You can’t begin to imagine the roller coaster they have been on.
Relational direction is the consistent guidance that you provide for your children. This is huge in foster parenting. When you consistently guide the children in your care, you create a road map. In other words, they start to gain an idea of where the day is headed because you are consistently doing the same thing. That was a missing piece in the place they came from.
Consistency helps to calm fear and anxiety.
It’s not a question of whether or not the children who are in your care have fear and anxiety; it’s how much and how severe. Remember, one of the biggest issues that children placed in foster care develop is a lack of attachment. This is a direct result of being taking from everything they know (even if it’s the most jacked up, dysfunctional environment), and placed in a strangers home.
This issue is exponentially greater if you are the 2nd, 3rd, or even 4th foster home they’ve been in. By consistently parenting them, you slowly whittle away at the fears they have. I say “slowly” because this is not an overnight fix (more on that in a minute). This is not even something that a week or a month of consistency will fix.
Chances are, if the children in your care only stay for a few days or weeks you will never see their anxiety diminish. That’s tough. Since we are creatures who thrive on results (at least most of us), we long to see the results of our consistency.
Much like #1, consistency reassures your children. And much like a lack of direction, there was probably a serious lack of reassurance in the environment they were removed from. The most important thing you can do for the children placed in your care is do what you say you’re going to do.
If you say you’re going to be there to pick them up from their practice at 8 pm, be there at 7:50. If you say you’re going to volunteer in their class, don’t back out because you goofed on your schedule. Cancel the other appointment and show up to their class.
This is reassurance. Their fearful heart is consumed with thoughts of abandonment. You can’t reassure them enough. Consistency reassures them that you are there, you are in their corner, and you will do everything in your power to ensure their safety. The result then is trust. At some point they will learn to trust you in a way that you cannot begin to imagine.
Dispelling The “Did That” Myth.
In foster parenting, or any parenting for that matter, it’s easy to get stuck in the “did that” rut. You probably know what I’m talking about- “Well, we already did that.” Or, “We tried that but it didn’t work.”
All of these statements would be correct…if we were basing the results of consistency on a week, 2 weeks, or a month. However, that’s not how consistency works! It’s based on repetition. Doing the same thing over and over and over; day after day after day. If you have children in your care long term, set your sights on several months, not days or weeks, before you see results. That’s what it will take.
Bottom line: plan for a marathon, not a sprint. This will take a lot of time and a lot of energy on your part. But you can do it. I know because there was a day where I thought we couldn’t, but we did!
[reminder]What have you discovered about consistency as it relates to foster parenting?[/reminder]