Do your friends & family get your parenting style?
Do they understand what is going on once the garage door closes and you are home with your kiddos?
For many of us, the answer is no.
They love us. They want the best for us. But they often don't understand.
Maybe they were all in at the beginning, celebrating our decision to become foster or adoptive parents. Maybe they bought gifts or brought over meals. But over time as reality sets in it can sometimes get a bit tense. Over time as trauma starts to show up it can get awkward. Over time as emotional or behavioural issues become more problematic we can become distanced or even in conflict with those we love.
So for today's blog I have put together a little note that you can share. It is a couple of thoughts I think may make a difference in how our families view our home. I'm hoping it will be clear and simple so your family can help you, this holiday season.
So if you are reading this and you have a friend or family member that is struggling through parenting their foster or adopted child, feel loved. This was shared with you by someone who loves you very much and wants to have a more intimate relationship with you. They want you to know the struggles they are having and they would so appreciate your help.
Maybe they need a patient listening ear, maybe they need some gentle encouragement, maybe they need an extra set of hands. But they are asking you to join them on this special needs parenting journey. They are asking you to help change the life of a child. It isn't a task any of us take lightly, and it isn't one we bear easily. But you can help us make a difference.
Thank you for wanting to walk this road with us.
As parents of foster & adopted children we are faced with challenges we didn't always see coming. But we are doing the best we can to provide safe, loving, healing homes for these children. So we are doing things a bit differently than the way we were raised, the way we dreamed of raising our children, and more than likely very different from the way you are raising your children. What we need from you is just a little bit of grace and trust that we have a strategy and are working towards a goal. Here is a little bit of what we are doing:
1. Although you don't know their history, and I may not either, we have seen some clues that in-utero trauma and / or early childhood trauma has taken a toll on this child. Feel free to privately ask me some questions if you are curious, but I might not have all the answers, because we just don't know everything. In foster care and adoption there are often gaps in the child's story. We have tried to get as much information as we can. But we may not know everything. But based on their behaviours and emotions, we can guess that there were some bad times in their early life. Again, feel free to ask, but I might not be able to tell you the answers because of confidentiality laws. In some situations I have been given information but I'm unable to share it with others. So if I say I cannot talk about it, I'm not trying to push you away. I legally need to protect the privacy of this child and cannot talk about their pain. So again, feel free to ask me, because I know you love our family. But please be accepting of whatever answer I am able to give to your questions.
2. What we do know, is that research tells us that mothers who experience high levels of stress during their pregnancy (for example, if they are considering placing their child in adoption or are in an abusive relationship or are homeless) tend to pass on those high cortisol levels onto their babies. This then creates higher anxiety levels in foster & adopted children. We may or may not know if drugs and / or alcohol was used in-utero. We may or may not know if the child was abused or neglected early in life. We do know that the child was separated from the one voice their heard in-utero as they are no longer with their birth mother. All of these factors (even if the child doesn't remember them) can cause significant emotional and behavioural issues in our kids. So if this holiday season you see my child in an elevated state, it is not because he or she is a bad kid. It is not because I don't discipline the right way. It is because they have a different chemical balance in their brain than other children, because of what they experienced before they met us.
3. So you are going to see me be a little more alert to their emotional state. You may see the kids laughing and joking around and then see me go in and spoil the fun by asking my child to take a break. It is probably because I can hear a laugh or see a smirk on their face that tells me they are starting to get over stimulated and they need to use some coping skills to become regulated again, before this gets ugly. I would really appreciate if you could trust me in those moments that I'm not ruining the fun. I am just making sure the fun lasts. You may see me being a bit more protective of their emotional state. Again, it might look different than the way you parent, I'm just trying to be in tune with their anxiety and ensure they feel safe and secure.
4. You might see me allow my child to miss out on some of the fun and let them spend some time alone, maybe even in front of a screen. This is because it helps reduce the anxiety they are experiencing. I do have well thought out screen rules and I enforce them. But sometimes screens are a great escape and coping skill that helps this child chill out and I might bend our rules during the holiday season. So he or she is not being rude and ignoring you. We are just working on emotion regulation this year and we will work on their manners when they can tolerate the loud noises and chaos of the holiday house.
5. You see, we have to choose our battles. There is a lot going on in this life of this kiddo this year so we are going to make sure they are safe and feel loved and learn to trust others. That is our main focus. The rest of the stuff can wait a bit. Because really, nothing else matters. If they grow up to be adults but are unable to feel safe, love and trust, they are going to have bigger problems.
6. We try to stick to a predictable schedule. I know around the holidays things can get chaotic and spontaneous and sometimes even a bit crazy. But for kids that come from trauma, those types of changes to the plan can increase their anxiety. So before we get to events we spend time with our kiddo running through the schedule for the day so they know what to expect. This helps temper their excitement and allow them to better enjoy the situation. We also spend a lot of time prompting them for transitions. This reduces any emotional stress that comes when they have to stop and activity and start a new one. So if there are any quick changes, we might have to decline, in order to keep this child feeling safe or you might see us coaching the child through the transition. Just give us some time and space to help them move on. We will get there, it might just take us and extra few moments.
7. We are parenting at their developmental age, not their chronological age. Even though our kids might look a certain age, we have spent enough time with them and have consulted with enough professionals to know their brain may not be working with their chronological age. So you might see us "babying" our kiddo. This might be because they missed out on certain essential stages of nurturing because of what their first few years of life looked like. We are not spoiling this child. We are helping them soothe, we are bonding and we are teaching them to trust. Experts have told us that this is essential for them to learn how to tolerate discomfort and self soothe. We would rather "baby" them or "spoil" them a little bit now, then have them unable to regulate their emotions at age 19.
8. We are not ever going to use corporal punishment with this child. There is an abundance of research that shows that the use of physical discipline does not help shape behaviour, esp in cases where the child has experienced neglect or abuse early in life. It is essential that we focus on shaping their behaviour through connection and positive reinforcement. So we are going to choose our battles and spend a lot of time connecting and reinforcing when we see them making good choices.
9. Food is kind of a big deal for our foster & adopted kids. So we have made a decision regarding what kind and how much food is a good idea. Although not in the moment, but later in private I'm happy to share with you what we are doing. For some kiddos we might be limiting certain foods because of the impact on their medical and behavioural needs. For other kiddos we might be letting them eat a lot of comfort food, that might look unhealthy to you. We are doing this because that is what they need right now. This might not be our plan forever. But this is the plan for this year, during this stage of their healing and growth.
10. For all of us as family and friends we care about each other and want to see our families thrive. I know that you only want to see my kids grow up to be healthy & happy & independent adults. I know that your concern for me is a concern for my well being that comes from a place of love. I appreciate this. But what I could most use from you during this challenging parenting season is your support. Trust that I know what I'm doing and why I'm doing it. In the moment, if you see I'm overwhelmed, instead of criticizing my strategy, maybe just ask, "How can I help?" It might be that I need some privacy and you can help clear the room or offer me a place to go. It might be that I need an item from my bag and you can retrieve it for me. It might be that I need a glass of wine to help me slow down when this episode is over and you can pour it for me!
If you are curious about what I'm doing, please feel free to ask why. I have thought through what we are doing at home and I'm happy to share it with you. But maybe wait until things have calmed down, not in the moment! Haha. And then, know that I'm not perfect. I have read some books and I have an idea of the trauma informed parenting strategies I want to use. But this is really hard and I'm only human. So I'm doing the best I can, but I'm tired. Maybe you can offer to help out with a meal or something in the next couple of weeks to give me a break?
As our friends and family, we love you and need you while we are in the trenches of helping this child heal this year.
I hope these few bullet points are helpful. If any of you are having a more challenging time working through some of these topics with your loved ones, you might need a one hour coaching session to chat this through. Or I'm happy to have a session with your loved one to go teach them the evidence and strategy behind these interventions. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and we can set one up for tomorrow. We can go over your unique situation and come up with some practical solutions & boundaries to help you make this holiday season a bit less hectic.