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Dec 22, 2017

Q&A with Mandy Taylor, Parent Support Specialist, Bethany Christian Services of Michigan, Grand Rapids

In a previous post, Mandy referred to children in foster care carrying an "invisible suitcase" of beliefs about themselves and the world. Kids who have been abused or neglected often internalize a painful narrative that they are not worthy of love. Foster parents who "just want to love children" need to know that children may have a hard time receiving or reciprocating that love. 

How can a foster parent know what’s inside a child’s “invisible suitcase”?

A child’s behavior is the clearest sign. Younger children don’t have the vocabulary to express their hard feelings, so they act out. They might be screaming because they lack the words to say, My mom missed this week’s visit, and I’m afraid of what’s going to happen. They are not screaming just to scream or because they are a “bad kid.”

I have a daughter who likes to sit quietly in the corner. As a foster parent, you might think, Great, she’s being quiet. That’s pretty easy behavior to deal with. But every time I walk by her and don’t acknowledge her, I’m feeding into her narrative: I’m not worth your time and attention. I have to intentionally shape my words and actions to show her I don’t buy into her narrative.

What about teens who might be better at masking what they’re really feeling?

Teens are more aware of their emotions and can often put words to them, but it’s usually harder to get them to talk about their feelings. It’s helpful to talk in a non-confrontational setting. A car ride is a good option. Teens are usually more comfortable to talk when you’re not looking directly at them. If you have some music playing in the background, it removes pressure for both of you to fill the silence.

Important conversations often begin with a casual topic. I’ve noticed that my older children will initiate a conversation with me when I’m in the kitchen doing dishes. They’ll sit on the bench behind me and throw out little conversational bites to see how I’ll respond. When they sense, OK, she heard me and didn’t shut me down, they’ll gradually trust me with more.

Some older children and teens aren't comfortable talking about some issues, but they may be open to journaling. Foster parents can invite kids to share a confidential journal where they can ask questions on paper, and the foster parents can respond in writing. These exchanges may help children learn how to initiate important conversations. 

How can foster parents and reunified parents help a child “repack their suitcase” so they can believe a different, more positive narrative?

Parents and foster parents need to reinforce to the child that their negative narrative (I'm bad, this is my fault, I'm not worthy) is not accurate. We have to introduce a new, accurate narrative (you're good, this isn't your fault, you are worthy) and look for ways to intentionally communicate this. You may need to set up situations for a child who believes they're "bad" where you can catch them doing good and say, “That was good! You made a good choice. You did a good job.” Help other people in the child’s life buy into the new narrative and reinforce it.

I teach a class for parents whose kids are in care, and they are working to reunite. A dad who reunited with his daughter shared:

I always said "I love you," and I thought that was enough. I realized I have to show it. So I said to my daughter, "I want to do something you love, something we can do together." She loves to run, so we are training for a 5K race. That has showed her my love in ways my words alone couldn’t convey. I meant the words when I said them; but when I also show her with my actions, that’s a completely different thing.

Should foster parents show love through hugs or physical touch?

Be very careful about physical touch. You know you’re a safe person, but to the child who just arrived in your home, you are a stranger. Be aware that some children don’t associate hugs with love. I still ask for a hug from a child who has been with our family for nine years. Because of her trauma history, I ask permission to be in her space. The child’s caseworker will know the child’s history and can guide you in this area.

Kids still need affection, even if they're not comfortable with hugs. Instead, you could give a high five, fist bump, or even make up a fun handshake. Ask the child what they prefer. You can also be physically present by tucking the child into bed at night, sitting with the child to read a book, or getting on the child's level to play a game.

Should a foster parent say the words “I love you” before they mean it?

Sometimes a child will say, “I love you” to a foster parent the first night they’re in the home. Foster parents ask me, “What was I supposed to say? I wasn’t ready to say, ‘I love you’ to them.”

I tell foster parents to build trust with their actions as well as their words. Show children that you mean what you say, and you don’t say things you don’t mean. You can respond with reassuring words such as, “I love that you’re here, and I’m excited to get you know you.” 

What do you say to a prospective foster parent who “just wants to love kids”?

Don’t stop loving kids, but realize they may have a hard time internalizing the message you’re trying to send. There’s nothing more fulfilling than having your love reciprocated and getting tangible evidence that your sacrifice is making a difference. Foster parents need to be prepared that this can take a long time, and sometimes it doesn’t happen at all. And foster parents need to know there are real reasons that have everything to do with the child’s history and nothing to do with your parenting skills. 

As you create a safe, stable, and loving environment for a child, be purposeful in your actions. They do speak louder than our words.

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