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Dec 15, 2017

by Mandy Taylor, Parent Support Specialist, Bethany Christian Services of Michigan, Grand Rapids

If you’re considering foster care because you’re hoping to love a hurting child and help them heal, there’s an important truth you need to know before you jump in: that child may not be equipped to receive what you’re hoping to share. I understand the intention, particularly for Christian families thinking about fostering a child; but children with a trauma history often have a complicated understanding of the concept of love.

We use the word “love” so casually and in so many contexts: I love pizza. I love that shirt. Some children don't know what relational love means.

Kids who enter foster care have grown up in hard homes with parents who are stretched. Parents who have experienced abuse or who never heard their own parent say, “I love you” often struggle to say those words or show love to their children. When children hear, “I love you” from an adult who hurts them, they internalize conflicting messages about love. And kids who never hear, “I love you” have no foundation for what that word means.

Many children who enter foster care have internalized a painfully negative message: I’m not worthy of love. While you may be drawn to fostering to love a child, please realize some kids aren’t ready to be loved—not by a stranger.

We show love through our actions, such as giving a child attention. When parents neglect their kids, children internalize the message that something is wrong or bad about them. Sometimes kids perceive this message, and sometimes parents actually say it. It only needs to be said once for a child to believe it.

Remember what is happening in the child’s world: They don’t see Mom and Dad every day, and they wonder, “Do Mom and Dad still care?” The only parents they’ve known have instilled in them a belief system with indelible messages such as:

  • Adults aren’t trustworthy.
  • Adults lie.
  • Adults might hurt me or each other.
  • Adults solve problems with violence.
  • Adults don’t care about me.

Can you see how it would be hard for a hurting child to respond when a cheery foster parent says, “I love you”? Can you see how a child might be equally skeptical to hear, “Jesus loves you”?

Further, children often believe what has happened to them is their fault. Kids from hard places carry an “invisible suitcase” filled with beliefs about themselves and the world. It’s their “baggage,” so to speak, and they unconsciously try to get others to buy into their narrative. One of the clearest ways they communicate their beliefs is in their behavior.

When I was a foster parent, I’d been through training, and I knew to carefully choose my words when dealing with difficult moments and behaviors. We had a child in our care who regularly heard “you’re bad” when she was young. In a conversation with her, I referred to a “bad choice” she’d made. But that’s not what she heard. She threw her hands up and said, “Just say it! I’m bad. I know I’m bad.” That was hard for me to hear, but that’s the narrative she had internalized and believed for a long time. She’s a permanent part of our family now through adoption, and we are still working to “repack her suitcase” with positive messages.

Foster parents and parents that reunify with their children after foster care need to help change the child’s narrative from I’m bad; I don’t deserve to be loved to I’m good; I am worthy of love. This involves demonstrating that the child is worth your time and attention and also saying the words, “You are good; you are loved.”

Continue reading for a Q&A with Mandy on ways to show kids they're worthy of love. 

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