We were having a conversation with a real estate agent when the reality of this hit us. He found out that we were adoptive and former foster parents, so he took the time to share his personal story. Growing up, his parents took in several children through foster care, mostly during his teen years. “That was the problem,” he said. “It was traumatic for me. I was dealing with the ups and downs of being a teenager and then I watched my parents deal with exhaustion and stress over some of the placements they received. It took a toll on our family.”
Later on, we reflected on our conversation with him. Truth is, our family went through this over the 9 years we were foster parents. The majority of the children who came into our care were not an issue, but there were a few who severely disrupted our home. Four years into being foster parents, we cared for a little girl with special needs that demanded every ounce of our time. Her diagnoses was failure to thrive which meant special feeding requirements. The time her care consumed put a halt on many family activities or time spent with our other children.
A few months after she left, we took in an unruly teenager who completely disregarded any of our boundaries. She argued everything, blew off the curfew we had set, and blatantly disregarded our household rules in front of our other children. The disruption these situations, and a few others not mentioned, caused our family to go through created trauma for our children that we weren’t clued into.
Why? Well, in short, we as a society tend to compartmentalize the term ‘trauma’ into either the result of a severe accident (like a car accident or work-related accident), or the result of severe abuse (sexual, physical or emotional). But trauma comes in many different forms, not just through accidents or pro-longed abuse. A human-being can experience trauma when they’ve gone through a major change, like moving to a new city, starting a new job or going to a new school. Trauma can also happen as the result of a big life disruption, like a difficult child coming to live with you through foster care, or watching a parent go through the emotional ups and downs from the behavior of another child.
So, what am I saying? If foster care can cause trauma to the rest of your family, does this mean you shouldn’t do it?
No. In fact, I’ve previously written about the reasons why the foster care system needs good people like you. If you feel called to do it, then do it. What it means is that you should take some critical steps before you enter the system to ensure that your family is ready (and you are ready) for the potential heavy challenge that foster parenting brings.
- Understand what you are getting into. As any seasoned foster parent can attest to, foster care is like getting on a roller-coaster and continuing to ride it with no stops. No situation is like the other, and nothing is guaranteed. The only guarantee is that there are no guarantees. The system is incredibly unorganized and, at times, very inefficient. There is a high turnover rate among case managers, and you will always have children in your care longer than you are told. The best thing you can do is prepare yourself for this reality. Talk it through with your spouse and your biological children or children permanently a part of your family. As much as possible, I recommend creating times of open dialogue so that everyone can share their viewpoints, fears and questions. Getting things out in the open ahead of time helps you navigate the possible rough waters of foster care. You will be frustrated, you will be tired, and you will be overwhelmed! Be ready for this. Enter with your eyes wide open.
- Protect time with the children who are a permanent part of your family. After the children who have come to you through foster care leave your care, the rest of your family remains. Remember this. Keep this thought at the forefront of your mind as you begin. It’s easy, because you have a good heart, to care so much about a foster child’s situation, that you pour all of your time and energy into caring for them and end up forgetting about your other children. Don’t do this! The truth is, this is the quickest way to cause resentment in your children. We know because we’ve made this mistake. Our rule of thumb is this: protect, protect, protect! You must be intentional about protecting time with the rest of your family, and you must intentionally spend time with the children who are a permanent part of your home.
- Set up non-negotiable boundaries that safeguard your family. Stick to them as if they are the Bible! The first day that a child is in your home, and in your care, you should have a family meeting to go over the boundaries. Make sure there is an understanding that these boundaries are not changing, and they are not up for negotiation. Other rules can be negotiated but these are untouchable. If we could go back in time, we would do more of this. We did okay at setting some and sticking to them (we are both first children, so we were a force to be reckoned with :-)), but we should have set up more.
I’m writing this post to you from an honest heart, and as one who has been there. We’ve learned the hard way and our hope is that our experience can help others achieve greater success. By all means, if you become a foster parent, love the children in your care with no strings attached. But, take it from us- be prepared for the unforeseen and unknown issues that often come with the territory of foster care!
Current (or former) foster parents- weigh in! What are some other things you would add to this post?