There are multiple stressors experienced by foster and adoptive families, who care for and raise children who have experienced trauma and separation from their families of origin. It is vital to understand the significance of these stressors and to build coping and resilience strategies.
Foster and adoptive parents embark on their journey of caring for maltreated children with high, often unrealistic, expectations of themselves: They will always be patient and accepting, they will love and immediately attach to the children in their homes, and they can undo years of neglect and abuse with kindness and love.
Expectations for children may likewise be unrealistic: The child will “heal” after a relatively brief time in a safe home, the child will attach readily to the new family and forget about previous attachments, and the child will not have long-term reactions to earlier trauma expressed through challenging behaviors.
When these expectations of themselves or their children are not met, many foster and adoptive parents react by feeling guilty that they have somehow failed in their mission of rescuing children.
To preserve your own sanity and the permanence of the commitment you have made to children in your care, it is essential that you select strategies to help you more effectively cope with the challenges of foster and adoptive parenting. You must “apply your own oxygen mask first” before you can meet the significant needs of the children in your lives.
In considering strategies that will help foster and adoptive families cope with challenges and increase their resilience, keep the following three principles in mind:
- Choose strategies that fit your child’s needs and developmental level
- Choose strategies that fit your family and your personal style
- Choose strategies that will have the biggest impact on your own personal self-care
In our culture, we tend to judge the quality of parenting in a family, not by looking at the behavior of the parent, but by observing the behavior of the child. For many foster and adoptive parents, this means they will be judged harshly by teachers, neighbors, family members and therapists.
Foster and adoptive parents did not create their child’s problems, and they are not in charge of fixing them. Instead, they are responsible for providing a stable environment in which children can find permanence and heal themselves. This is a long-term process. Because this can take years, foster and adoptive parents experience a lack of validation from other professionals--and even from friends and family.
Lack of validation from others is hard enough, but if you join the blamers in blaming yourself, you will likely be overwhelmed and unable to manage the undeserved guilt.
Most therapists have little training on issues of adoption and foster care. And untrained therapists may exacerbate your difficulties by ascribing blame or assuming you can reverse years of maltreatment with a star chart.
An adoption-competent therapist is knowledgeable about adoption and the impact of trauma on children. He or she also must understand the stages of normative adoptive family development. And the therapist must grasp how living with a traumatized child can affect the rest of the family.
Questions to ask when selecting a therapist include:
- What’s your experience with adoption issues?
- How long have you been in practice, and what degrees and licenses do you hold?
- What continuing clinical training have you had on adoption issues?
- What approach to therapy do you use?
- Can you estimate a timeframe for the therapy?
- Do you include parents and other family members in the therapeutic process?
- Do you give parents regular reports on the child’s progress?
- Do you work with teachers, daycare providers and other adults in the child’s life when appropriate?
When parenting a child who may have sudden trauma reactions to unexpected triggers, don’t jump into the child’s fear or increase it through angry outbursts. As Heather Forbes, noted therapist, author and adoptive parent, says: “Recognize how your internal piece affects the external peace.”
If you find yourself starting to lose control, you might respond with, “I am leaving the room because I don’t want to do or say something I don’t mean. I’ll be back as soon as I am calm again.” This communicates to the child that you will not abandon him or her, but that you are taking responsibility for your own emotional state.
Does your child experience a crisis annually as her birthday approaches? Is early May, with Mother’s Day around the corner, always a battle of divided loyalties for your child? When you have some understanding of trauma triggers or anniversary reactions that set off your child, you can develop strategies to intercept or minimize the impact of these events.
Keep in mind that children use behavior to express feelings because they haven’t been successful in communicating feelings through language. Look for the feelings behind the behaviors, and learn to address the fears and anger underlying the triggers. With your help, your child will learn to regulate his/her emotions more effectively and express feelings with words--instead of behaviors.
It is said that “perception is 90 percent of reality.” When you compare what is happening inside your own family, you may feel that your family is much more dysfunctional than most of your extended family, neighborhood or community. However, you are comparing your “insides” (what you know intimately about your own family situation) to other people’s “outsides” (what they choose to present to the community). This literally is comparing apples to oranges--and can be counter-productive in your assessment of your own worth and parenting success.
Do a role check. Is one parent carrying too much of the load? If one parent becomes depleted, an unfair burden may fall on the shoulders of the other parent. A helpful technique is to explore and list the parenting tasks each parent does very well and the parenting tasks that are problematic or disastrous. Parents can then differentiate which roles each is most suited to tackle. This enables parents to work as a team, share the load and use their individual strengths to benefit the entire family.
Parents also may find it helpful to use respite care occasionally. Some respite care is formal, provided by foster care or post-adoption programs. Other respite care may be informal or provided by a grandparent, close friend, favorite relative or another foster or adoptive parent. When engaged in draining work, we all need to replenish our energies with a break.
Parents often fall victim to dire predictions of the future based on the child’s current level of functioning. For example, “He will wind up living in a refrigerator box under a freeway overpass” or “She will have three children by the time she is 20, and they will all have different fathers” or “He will be on the roof of a parking garage with a loaded rifle.”
Reframe your definition of success and celebrate small gains. Use positive self-talk and learned optimism. Mark Twain recognized the foolishness of worrying when he wrote, “My life has been filled with terrible misfortunes, most of which never happened.”
As traumatized children heal, regressions are extremely common. Keep in mind that backsliding is part of the process of healing. Don’t overreact to temporary setbacks.
Parents, particularly those with children who display difficult behaviors, can be drawn into a steady stream of correction. The correction can escalate into nagging or other negative messages to a child who already feels unloveable and unkeepable. Interrupt this negative cycle by finding ways to increase your positive interactions with the child. This is not only fun, but increases attachment.
Raising children is rewarding but stressful. Even when exposed to high levels of stress, individuals can prevent crisis through effective coping strategies. Foster and adoptive parents have committed to providing stability to children who have experienced trauma, separation and maltreatment. Hopefully, some of the strategies presented here will enable these parents to enjoy the rewards that come from providing a safe home for our neediest children.
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