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Aug 31, 2018

Interview with Sarah Pettengill, MA, LMFT, Home Study Writer, Riverside, California

It’s hard to picture what foster parenting will really be like if you’ve never been a foster parent before. It’s hard to picture how you might respond to challenges when each child’s circumstance will be different. You may not know if you have what it takes until you’re in it.

Here’s why I bring this up. There’s a real thing that happens when foster parents say they’re “all in” when they aren’t: kids get hurt. All children in foster care have experienced trauma, and trauma shapes a young child’s developing brain. They live in “fight or flight mode,” expecting the world to be a dangerous place, and fear-based triggers lead to difficult, sometimes unexpected behaviors. The scope and scale of that is different for each child.

Here’s why that matters. First-time foster parents can go into fight or flight mode too when they say yes to a child and realize perhaps they weren’t ready. Foster parents in flight mode call Bethany and say, “Come pick up this child, I can’t handle them anymore,” and the child continues to “bounce around” in foster care. The effects of this are further explained in this post.

Across the U.S., children need safe foster homes. As a foster care recruiter, now home study writer, I’m not here to talk anyone out of becoming a foster parent, but I can share a perspective that will help new and aspiring foster parents set realistic expectations for what foster parenting is like.

Unrealistic: The child will warm up to me quickly, happy that they are no longer being abused and grateful for the excellent care I provide.  

The assumption here is that children will be so glad to be out of an abusive or neglectful environment that they will immediately sense your goodwill for them and reciprocate your love and affection. New foster parents particularly expect this response from younger children.

Realistic: Children are loyal to their families, even family members who may have hurt them. Being removed from their homes and entering a new environment is scary. A child accustomed to chaos could find the relative calm of your home unnerving. And you’re a stranger—they don’t know if they can trust you, and they may fear that trusting you means being disloyal to their family. Children also feel out of control. They did not choose what happened to them or where they are living now. Although the safe home they are in is needed, they likely feel they’ve been “plopped in somewhere,” and they will search for opportunities to gain back some control to help make sense of their experience and environment. Expect that it will take time to earn the child’s trust.

Unrealistic: I’m going to connect with and love the child right away.

Most adults have no experience loving and caring for a child in this capacity—a child they are not biologically related to—yet they expect to quickly bond and build trust with a child who has a history of relational trauma. 

Reality: You will be trying to connect with a child who responds to you based on a history you weren’t part of, a history you may not understand. The child may exhibit difficult behaviors rooted in trauma. You can’t take any of that personally, even when it feels personal. Foster care requires a deep reserve of compassion. Love may follow, but it can’t be conditional on whether the child loves you back.

Unrealistic: The child is safe in my home and has nothing to fear.

You know the child is safe, but that doesn’t mean the child knows they are safe. As stated above, everything about the situation in your home is new for the child. The child may know they are safe regarding basic needs, but they need to develop felt safety before they will trust.

Reality: Assume nothing. In our local Bethany training meetings, we use activities to help new foster parents understand a child’s fears. We challenge them to think through practical ways they can help a child feel safe in their home such as giving the child space, incorporating the child’s culture or traditions, and helping the child stay in touch with extended family members when possible.

Unrealistic: We want to adopt a child from foster care who will fit our family.

The first goal of foster care is reunification with biological parents. When that isn’t possible, adoption is usually the next path. Bethany works closely with children and adoptive families to make a good match, but fostering-to-adopt is not like taking a test drive: “We’ll keep looking until we find one we like.”

Reality: There’s a difference between “We want a child who fits our family” and “We want to open our home and family to a child who needs one.” Bethany’s priority is to find families for kids, not the other way around. In training, we ask parents, “What routines make things work for your family now? What do your evenings look like when you come home from work? Expect that foster care and adoption will disrupt your routine. Even your sleep is likely to change. Everyone in your home—parents and biological siblings—will need to make adjustments to welcome a new child into your family.

How can you find out up front if your expectations match reality?

  • Do your own research. You’ll find a variety of posts right on this blog that can give you a clearer picture of what to expect (scroll down to “read more”).
  • Ask a lot of questions one-on-one when your caseworker is doing your home study.
  • Be vulnerable about your questions and fears in training meetings. We do cover a lot of information, but your questions are important too, and we give you opportunities to discuss all kind of things in training. Chances are good someone else in the room has the same questions you do, so please ask!
  • Invite an experienced foster parent to meet you for coffee. Ask them what they love about foster parenting and what is most challenging. Ask what surprised them. Ask what they wish they would have known. Ask about ways their family has changed. Ask how real-life foster parenting has been different than what they’d expected. Ask what advice you need that you don’t yet know to ask for. Note: To maintain confidentiality, foster parents cannot share specific details about any child’s history or experience, but they can speak in general terms.
  • Join a support group for foster parents. Sit in on a local Bethany meeting or find a group online. Learn from their experience and make an informed decision whether foster parenting is right for you.

Thank you for your heart to provide a safe home for children! We need you. They need you. You need to know what to expect so you can be informed, prepared, and equipped to meet children right where they are.


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