As a culture, we place an almost magical value on the words “I love you.” They are words that should not be said until you REALLY mean them. . . whatever that means to you. They are words that cement a relationship and imply commitment. But we also use those words incredibly flippantly. I love that hamburger. I love this show. I’m in love with my new sandals. The words “I love you” can mean everything and nothing depending on the context. We feel free to express our love for things or celebrities we’ll never meet or vacation locations, but when it comes to people in our lives we can be much more cautious.
Because we place so much value on saying “I love you” only when we mean it and at the right time, it can feel tricky to decide when to tell your foster child you love them. I think the concerns about doing it break down into three categories: concern for the child’s heart, respect for the biological family, and self-protection.
This child is likely a temporary addition to your family. It can feel unkind to tell a child we love them if they are just going to be with us for a short time. We don’t want them to think people who love them will always leave them. We’re worried about the message that sends. Is telling them we love them a promise we’re making that we know we can’t keep? Will we break their hearts when it’s time for them to go? Will the pain be harder and deeper because we told them we loved them and now we’re abandoning them?
And what about the family they came from? Do we put the child in an awkward position when we tell them we love them? We don’t want them to feel pressured into responding that they love us too if that makes them feel disloyal to their family. We worry that if the parents knew we loved their child, they might feel hurt. This is an awkward dance of wanting to support the family, but also connecting with their child and loving them as our own.
But I think the biggest concern is really for ourselves. If I say out loud that I love this child, I’m admitting this situation has the power to break my heart. If my friends and family know I love this child, they’ll begin to fear for me and the heartache that’s coming and they may say unkind things about a biological family they know little about. If I love this child, I may move from being an unbiased participant in the process to a passionate advocate. Love always brings with it the potential for pain and in foster care it doesn’t just feel like potential, it feels like a foregone conclusion.
There is also a chance we may not “love” this child the way we imagined we would. Foster kids are like all kids– they can be annoying, needy, sassy, manipulative, and whiney. And that’s the best case scenario. Because of the trauma they’ve experienced they can have much deeper wounds and much greater walls than your average kid. The coping skills they learned in an unhealthy environment can make it tough for them to acclimate to a healthy one. Sometimes it isn’t that you don’t want to tell them you love them, the reality is you don’t actually love them. . . at least not yet.
Foster Parent, I have been there.
My first introduction to loving someone else’s child was through group home work with primarily teenage boys. We found some kids we instantly connected with in spite of their difficult behaviors and some kids were more of a challenge. For the children that were easy for me to love, it was easy for me to tell them I loved them. Although it felt awkward at first, I knew it was true and it was good for them to hear it. For the kids I had a harder time with, I found myself withholding.
One night I was going room to room, saying goodnight to our boys. As I closed the door to the room of one of our older and harder to deal with boys, I realized I didn’t say “I love you” to him. I hadn’t felt guilty about that before because it didn’t feel authentic for me to say it. But that night I stopped and put myself in the position of that young man. And I realized I was being a jerk.
I grew up in a home where I never went a day in my life without hearing that I was loved. It may have been an explicit “I love you” or in more subtle ways– a kiss on the head, a pat on the back, encouraging words about something I was working on or just a loving presence next to me on the couch while I read. I never doubted that I was a loved person and worthy of love. This has had a tremendous impact on who I am as an adult. It has given me the ability to be confident in myself and to trust others. These are necessary skills for making good life decisions.
But what about this boy in my home? Did he grow up in a home where someone made sure he always knew he was loved? And even if he had, that role had now been delegated to me. His mother wasn’t calling him daily to say those words to him. It was painful to me to realize if I didn’t tell him he was loved, he would not hear it from anyone. I couldn’t allow that to happen to a child in my care. I determined that day any child in my home would hear they were loved and would know they were loved as much as I could help it.
I believe at some point whether you actually have feelings of love about the child becomes irrelevant. Children need to be loved. You are doing love for them even if you don’t feel it. You are changing diapers or making lunches or helping with homework or braiding hair or sitting with them in the doctor’s office. That is love even when you feel frustrated or discouraged in your heart.
Maybe this child will be hurt when they leave, but I don’t believe not telling them they are loved will make the pain any less. Maybe their biological family will be upset, but I don’t think it’s right to withhold love from a child to please their family. Maybe you’re concerned about how your heart will break if you admit you love this child. But that’s why we’re here– to let our hearts break so these little hearts can heal.
If you feel uncomfortable saying the words “I love you” to your foster child, find other ways to be sure they know they are loved. I have whispered over babies, “Mama loves you.” because that is true in every sense– both their biological Mama and their foster Mama love them. I have said, “You are so loved” to children who have family that love them even if I don’t feel that love yet. I have told children “You are lovable. You are worth loving.” because that is true of EVERY child regardless of whether I feel that love yet or not. And most importantly, I remind kids that God loves them. I tell them that part of the reason I know God loves them is that he has put a little bit of His great love for them in my heart, too.
When it comes to love and these precious kids, I believe we can fake it until we make it. Do love, be love, speak love and you will eventually feel love. And if you don’t feel it, that doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t there. Love is so much more than warm feelings or intense positive emotions. Don’t let a child in your home go a day without knowing they are loved, even if you aren’t sure how you feel. A child who feels confident they are loved and worth loving is ultimately a child who is much easier to love.
For more information on foster parenting in Nebraska, contact Christian Heritage.