When it comes to parenting, I think realistic expectations are an important part of maintaining your sanity. This is doubly true for foster parenting. Foster parents may have expectations of what their foster kid can do that put an unfair burden on that child. When we confront those expectations (even the subconscious ones) we can give our foster kids the freedom to be themselves. So what is it that we might expect from our foster kids that they just can’t do?
Your foster child can’t be expected to be grateful. If you know the circumstances your foster child came from, it seems natural to assume they will be happy to be removed from that environment. They may have gone from an unsafe and neglectful home into your loving care. Maybe they were often hungry or witnessed domestic violence or were responsible for caring for younger siblings even though they were just little ones themselves. You imagine they will be so thankful to no longer have those burdens and worries, but we forget that that life was normal to them. They have been removed from what felt familiar and placed into a foreign land of new rules and roles. There may be gratitude at some point down the road or gratitude for some things while they are frustrated at other elements of living with you. If you get into foster care thinking you are rescuing a child and they will thank you for it, you may be setting yourself up for frustration.
Your foster child can’t make you feel better about yourself. If you were inspired by “Annie” or “Punky Brewster” to be an advocate for a child in need and you expected that this would make you feel more fulfilled or satisfied with your life, you may be disappointed. Caring for kids from trauma is hard and exhausting work and instead of making you feel like a good person, it can make you feel like a failure. Even if you used to consider yourself a good parent, this stuff can make you question that assessment as you deal with a child who doesn’t respond to your usual ways of parenting.
Your foster child can’t be your trendy project. Have you been inspired by people you see around you who are passionate about changing the world through foster care? Want in on that? That may not be enough of a reason to jump into foster parenting. The demands of foster care will continue long after the fun of jumping on a social cause bandwagon has worn off. If you want to help, there are ways to volunteer and support foster kids that require less of a commitment. That may be a good way to get your feet wet in the world of foster care and figure out if this really is for you.
Your foster child can’t heal your past trauma. If you had a tough childhood yourself and want to give back, you may find that being a foster parent is actually quite triggering. Your own fears of abandonment and rejection, the angry words and screaming, having to deal with adults who are struggling with addiction or violence issues– these things can reignite the pain of your own trauma instead of healing it. It may be that being able to help a child feels cathartic for you and can be a gift, but you need to be at a place of health BEFORE investing in kids who need the focus on their own healing.
Your foster child can’t just be “normal.” These are kids that have experienced trauma. They have learned how to survive and cope with things many of the rest of us have never had to experience. The coping skills that served them so well in their previous environment have now become unhealthy. Hoarding food makes perfect sense when people aren’t feeding you regularly, but once you’re in a stable home, it’s hard to turn off that drive for self-preservation that causes you to stash fruit in your pillowcase. These kids can unlearn unhealthy behaviors and replace them with healthy ones, but it takes a lot of work, training, empathy and likely some good counseling. (*Obviously, this is very individualized. Kids struggle in varying degrees and some may be entirely typical and developmentally “normal.” Whatever their reality, your expectations should be realistic– that these kids generally have struggles they’ll need your help to overcome even if it takes some time before they feel comfortable revealing their issues.)
If you’re wondering if you have any of these expectations, ask yourself how you respond when things aren’t going well. If your foster child is angry, do you feel resentful that they aren’t more thankful for the sacrifices you’ve made? If your foster child rejects you, do you feel devastated and angry? If other people don’t recognize all the work you put in to be a foster parent, do you feel bitter? Do you find your foster child’s behavior triggering your old wounds? Do you find yourself longing for your old, normal life? All of these responses are understandable. Foster care can be challenging, but when you can line up your expectations with what these children are capable of, you may find it less draining and even the personal attacks may feel less personal.
Because here’s what these kids CAN do– they can heal. They can grow. They can change. They can experience love and allow that love to filter into the really wounded parts of their heart. When we can keep their needs at the center of what we’re doing instead of our own desires, we can see beautiful things happen. When we can learn not to take things personally we may be better able to avoid the discouragement and burnout that are so common to the foster care system. When we take these kids as they are, understanding their limitations, acknowledging that their “normal” is different from other children we’ve parented (even other foster children because each little one comes to us with their own unique story) we give them a great gift of unconditional love. We don’t know what they’ll do with that gift. We can’t control how they’ll respond to us or their situation. But we do the right thing when we love them regardless of what they can give back and with an open hand about the outcome.
I have seen children come to accept love and reciprocate it with a fierceness and loyalty I didn’t know was possible. I have had a child look me in the eye and scream, “I hate you.” and I had no doubt that’s how he truly felt. I have done my best to love every child who crossed my path. Some of them have been like empty buckets, waiting to be filled. Some have been like closed doors where I continued to knock until my knuckles were bloody. Keeping my sanity has meant realizing that I can’t make these kids choose love or trust. I keep my expectations low and then choose hope. Hope that someday what I have done will make a difference, even if I never get to personally see the results.
If you are interested in more information about foster care in Nebraska, contact Christian Heritage.