This might be a bold statement, but I’m going to go with it.
There are four things that every foster care situation struggles with. Regardless of the details of the situation, the reason for removal or the present circumstances of the child…these struggles will be present in the home.
Let me just break each one down real quick. I wanted to do this for several reasons. First, I want those of you who do not foster to have a little window into the world of foster care. Secondly, I want to prepare those who do plan to foster in the future. And thirdly, I want to encourage other foster parents who are out there struggling with one of those things right now. You are not alone.
**Just for reference, when I refer to “trauma” in this post, I specifically mean being taken from the home that they know and put into a new home. This in itself is traumatic to a child.
First up, sleeping.
A child can struggle to sleep for many reasons, even in a safe, nurturing environment. In a foster care situation, the child has been taken from the familiar and placed into the unfamiliar. Not only is bedtime hard, but falling asleep, staying asleep and enjoying sleep are extremely difficult for children who have been through trauma. They are in an unfamiliar place, with unfamiliar lighting and sounds and unfamiliar people that they do not always feel comfortable going to for comfort. Once they finally fall asleep, the nightmares come. I have seen this in babies and older children as well. Sleeping is hard when trauma is involved.
Or perhaps the child will take on the opposite problem: they cannot stop sleeping. Instead of thinking about or dealing with the situation, all they can manage is to shut it out by sleeping.
Food and eating can be a huge difficulty in any child, but especially in one who is going through foster care. Many children who have been through any type of trauma simply don’t have an appetite. They don’t feel like eating and therefore they can’t.
Food can also be a control issue for many children. We may be able to take them from their homes, make them live with us and make them get dressed everyday, but by golly we CANNOT make them eat. They are in control of that, and many kids latch onto anything they can be in control of because they feel so out of control. As a side note here…we tend to do this with food even as healthy, stable adults!
Another huge food issue is that they are not used to the food that is put in front of them. The child may come from a different culture and simply miss the food they had at their house before. They may have never been told to eat their vegatables or never been served a freshly cooked egg. They may be used to eating ravioli out of a can every single night for dinner…and therefore they miss canned ravioli.
Which can also lead to the opposite problem in children of foster care. Many of them come from homes where food was not readily available, and they were often very hungry. Once they enter into a safe foster home with a stocked fridge and pantry, they want to eat it all. And keep eating. And eating. Its a ravenous instinct and they are fearful that if they don’t eat it NOW that it will disappear and they will once again go hungry. This can lead to hoarding and overeating, as well as a greedy need for seconds and thirds even after they are full.
As you can see, no matter how you approach it…food can be challenging.
I think to some extent, we all have triggers. Some of us are just more emotionally stable and able to handle them more easily.
As parents, we can often foresee our children’s triggers and know when and where to avoid them. But as foster parents, we are handed a child that is a complete stranger. We don’t know their past, we barely know them in the present. And one day, out of nowhere, our foster kid has an epic meltdown. And we are left dazed and confused. Months later it clicks…she saw a man in the store with a beard. Beards are triggers. Or that woman at the restaurant was pouring a bottle of wine. Bottles of wine are triggers. Or we INSISTED that she wear her leggings but we didn’t realize that those leggings are the very same ones that she was wearing the day she was taken from her Mom. Or the song on the radio brings back memories that they just can’t deal with.
Triggers. They are everywhere and we don’t even know it. They show up when we are not expecting it and oftentimes, the child isn’t even fully aware of the big feelings that they are feeling.
Visitation is a necessary evil in foster care. It’s absolutely necessary for the goal of reunification. But it’s the absolute most challenging thing I have ever dealt with as a foster parent.
The child either dreads visits or looks forward to visits. Dreading visits leads to emotions and behaviors that are extremely hard to handle. Looking forward to visits leads to heightened emotions and off the wall behavior (think: children on Christmas Eve/Christmas morning). Then, the time for the visit arrives. This precious child with all these pent-up emotions arrives at the visit and the parent doesn’t show. They don’t show. The child is CRUSHED.
Or, the parent shows and the visit goes well! They love seeing their parent and they enjoy the time together. And then the end of the visit arrives and the child has to say goodbye to their parent…again. And again and again week after week.
The emotions after visits (or missed visits) are always sky-high. Attitudes are on overdrive, tears are quick to come, tensions are high.
The foster child just doesn’t want to be in foster care anymore. Even if they love the foster home, they feel torn between two worlds, and they just don’t want to be in between two worlds. Nothing brings this tension into focus more than visitation.
Now, many of you may think that as I write out these four things, they must only apply to older children. Surely babies don’t go through the same types of difficulties as those children who are old enough to process emotions? You would be wrong in assuming that. Even babies have a harder time sleeping and eating. They are processing different types of triggers even as they adjust to the world that they were just born into.
And visits? Our foster daughter Abigail was 5 weeks old when she went to her first visitation. She screamed for 8 hours afterwards. This happened every time she had visitation. She was so confused. To be reunited with her mother, whose smell and voice she knew, and then to be taken from it again and again week after week? Trust me…she struggled.
I am aware that this post is not all sunshine and roses. It is focusing on the difficult aspects of foster care. Children in foster care are going through some major things that most adults wouldn’t even know how to deal with. Sometimes being a foster parent is overwhelming and exhausting because we feel like we are literally holding the children together by all these shattered pieces. Foster care is not all challenges and struggles, and I don’t want to come across as complaining about the hard pieces. But I do want to bring awareness to some of the hardest parts of this journey that we go through.
Foster parents…would you agree with this list, or do you have anything else that you would add to it?
For those of you who are not foster parents, did any of this surprise you?