10 Ways to Really Help a Foster Parent
Whether it is an adoptive parent struggling to bond with a new child, or a foster parent saying goodbye for the 14th time. Whether it is a kid who just punched a hole in the wall during a mother's day rage, or a school calling for the 3rd time this week because your child refuses to stay in the classroom. Being a foster or adoptive parent is a really hard journey... and often our loved ones notice. They know us well and can see the exhaustion growing under our eyes. They can read the hidden (or not so hidden) messages in our text responses. They get how much we love our family, but ... it's emotionally & physically hard.
So, out of an honest place of compassion, in the grocery store, church foyer or at our kitchen table. They see our pain, they hear how hard it is, they love us so much. They ask, "How can I help?"
They genuinely want to help. They have asked the question because they want to make it better. But now... what do you say? How do you respond?
Me? Most of the time I say, "Oh, we will be ok, thanks."
It's not true. I need help. But I rarely know how to answer that question. Most of us went into fostercare or adoption because we are strong, capable helpers. We are the ones who set out to help. We signed up for this. We have always been the ones to help others. We are not always comfortable asking for or receiving help.
Sometimes I feel awkward asking for help, because I created this situation. I invited this into my home. I don't want to bother you with my exhaustion. But, I really need to. And when I slow down I realize, my tribe genuinely loves me and wants to help.
So let's talk about this conversation. I brought this up in the book, but as a therapist, and friend, and foster mom, I'm going to challenge you to stop asking the question, "How Can I Help?" This question puts all the weight on the listener. When we ask that question, the other person is then faced with the socially awkward moment of telling you what they would like you to do for them. Which is already a tough one for people like us. Naturally, after the question is asked, we are put in the position of thinking through, what do I need? Which then feels like a lot! Then I think, ok, what can I say that won't be too much to ask?
What can I say that isn't offensive (cleaning the kids' bathroom?) or expensive (Grubhub gift card?) or time consuming (will you just hang with me so I can feel normal?).
So I just thank them for the offer. I'm often too tired to go through that thought pattern and I'm worried about ruining our friendship by asking for something you didn't mean to offer. So I will often thank them and change the subject. But that's not right.
If are the kind of friend that actually wants to help, I am going to give you a list of ideas that pretty much all foster & adoptive parents would appreciate. Read through this list. Then, pick two or three items you feel comfortable giving. Then tell your friend,
"I love you. I am in this with you. I am here to help. So I am going to do _____ or _____ what would you prefer?"
This lets the person know what help you are able to offer, and gives them some choice as to what they need or feel comfortable receiving. It takes the pressure off and makes the conversation much more natural. The boundaries are there. Your friend doesn't feel guilty and you get to help.
So here are some ideas...
1. Help with food. Offer to drop off a meal or a restaurant gift card. If they are parenting younger kids they may be tired of eating cold, leftover chicken nuggets and even if you just dropped off a really nice grown up meal for the parent(s) that would be amazing! A lot of foster & adoptive parents cannot get out of the house for a date night, but if someone dropped off a lovely dessert or bottle of wine that could be enjoyed after the kids went to bed that could be such a treat!
2. Help with finances. There is a saying with fostering, if you are doing it right, you spend more than you get. If there is a way you can provide the family with diapers, clothing or helping pay for their child to attend camp or join a sports team, that would be much appreciated. Not every family may need financial support, but let's be honest, even if your friend isn't struggling financially, it is really nice to be able to pull into a drive through and grab a little treat for yourself in the middle of a crazy day.
3. Help with rides. Often times kids from hard places have busy schedules. They may need occupational therapy, mental health services, tutoring, speech therapy, just to name a few. And then in our home we require our kids to be involved in extracurricular activities to work on social skills, frustration tolerance and mastery skills. So between these appointments, hair cuts, bio family visits and play dates with friends, it can get busy! If you are able to volunteer to drive a child to a weekly commitment (or even just once) that would be much appreciated. Another idea is to give a gas station gift card. It's just a simple way to say, I see all the driving you have to do, and I'm in it with you.
4. Help with respite. Sometimes as parents of these kids with special needs we need a break. And sometimes, our kids need a break from us. If you are able to have a child spend a night or a weekend with you it could be so helpful! Depending on where you live, you may need to complete a background check to have the foster child sleepover at your home. But going through that process could be a life saver for your friend. Maybe you even spend the night at their home and gift the parent(s) with a night at a hotel?
5. Help love on our kids. Sometimes as parents we are just so tired of pouring out love. We are depleted and empty. Our kids have said and done hurtful things, and it's tough to continue to play and laugh and offer the unconditional love they need. Recently we had a child home from school due to a suspension. I asked one of my friends if this child could spend the day with them so I could have a break. And it was amazing. This child was able to help out around their home and feel loved. They didn't just sit around our house all day begging for screen time. It was a good reset for the school, us and this child. Would you be willing to take your friend's child out for ice cream? Have them spend a Saturday at your home? Organize play dates with your kids? Take them out to a concert or a movie? Write them notes or cards reminding our kids how special they are to the world? Come by the house and play with the kids for an hour or two so the parent can recharge?
6. Help by listening. We have some tough stories and sometimes really just need to vent. We often feel anxious about venting because we are wondering what you will think of us if you knew what we were really going through. We are worried you may ask too many questions about the child's past that we really cannot share. We are worried you may suggest we return the kids (because people say that stuff!). Don't be that friend. Be our cheerleader. Sit with us. Listen to us. Pray for us. But don't judge us, give us advice or suggest we give up. Help us stay in the fight by knowing we are not crazy or alone.
7. Help by dropping off thoughtful little gifts. It is lovely to have a special little gift appear at the door. Consider showing up with a card or bottle of wine, cup of coffee or tea, carton of ice cream or box of chocolates, bubble bath and candle or any type of gift basket. Again, it is a small gesture that will mean a lot. So often we feel alone in the messy chaos and a moment like this can help us get through.
8. Help by cleaning. Some of us (me) hate to clean. And it seems that when you bring a bunch of emotional kids into your house, it can get really dirty and messy. Are you one of those folks that gets satisfaction from tackling a dirty kitchen? Do you find laundry relaxing? Perhaps offer to come by one day or one day / month to help care for the home. If you are not a cleaner, perhaps you buy a gift card to a cleaning service and then the parent(s) can pick when and what they would like done.
9. Help by creating a tribe. If your friend doesn't have a tribe, create one! Are you in a religious or neighbourhood community that can get organized around the foster & adoptive parents in your area? Maybe you create a team that offers meals the first week a new placement arrives or takes turns with babysitting or asks everyone to pitch in for gift items on an Amazon wish list the family can create. Do you know someone that would give free pedicures? Do you know someone that owns a car detailing shop?
10. Help by being in it with us. There are a lot of tough meetings we have to sit through. From home studies to court dates to agency investigations. Sometimes these meetings can be scary as we are being evaluated for how we are caring for the children and if we are fit to have them remain in our care. Sometimes these meetings are tense as there are so many emotions on the table. Would you go with your friend to an appointment? Sit next to them in the court room? Wait for them in the car? Buy them a coffee when its over?
Foster & Adoptive parenting is hard. Really hard. Pain is not evidence you are on the wrong journey. Every caterpillar goes through struggle and this tough season in your home may be the beginning of some beautiful healing. You can do this. But you cannot do it alone. We need a tribe. We need loved ones to come around us and support us on this long journey. So instead of saying, "I've got this, thanks!" Let those who love you, love you well.
We need emotional and practical support to ensure that we can be the healing home our kiddos need. If this blog has brought up any questions or concerns for you, I'd love to chat with you about it. Feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org