I wanted to write a post about one of my biggest failures and learning moments while fostering. Not a very flattering post, but I want to always be real about the difficulties of this journey. It doesn’t help to pitch cupcakes and rainbows, when the reality is that most know that I can’t cook and we all know a storm precedes a rainbow. There is no class, no training, nothing that will completely prepare you for the tough job of working with kids from hard places. I’ve come to realize that by sharing experiences and also resources, perhaps I could encourage and help others on this path. I also want to speak some hard truths. If you are just beginning foster care or adoption, you are going to fall hard at times and you will make mistakes and probably cry in the shower, but that doesn’t mean you quit or that you need to try harder. I have learned it means you need to try differently.
When we started out doing foster care I thought I was ready, I took the classes, I read the books, and I was a public school teacher who managed a large class of third graders; I also had two children. Yes, I felt one hundred percent ready to take in foster children, and it never crossed my mind that all my experiences in my classroom and raising my own children, would amount to a ‘hill of beans’, as my grandpa used to say.
The learning curve was truly steep and I stumbled as I tried to figure out why all my bag of tricks and traditional parenting techniques were failing miserably. Time outs, rewards, punishments, all the things that worked in the past, were like putting water on oil. Not only did they not work, they actually seemed to make things worse. That leads me to a moment that I am not proud of, but truly changed my perspective and understanding.
We will call him Timmy to protect anonymity. He was dropped off at my doorstep with the clothes on his back and an attitude of independence. He was HARD and every day was a power struggle. It finally culminated to a standoff that I was determined to win.
Timmy stood in his bedroom and stared me straight in the eye with his 5 year-old body clenched with righteous indignation. He stood there covered in his own feces and he was adamant that it was not him who had smeared it all over his bedroom walls. I was disgusted as the smell rolled off of him. I felt fearful of his ability to lie so convincingly, while literally wearing the DNA evidence. Every particle of my being wanted to yell at him, a grown woman wanting to yell at the top of her lungs at a child. I didn’t yell, instead I am most horrified as I hear these words tumble from my lips, “This is disgusting. I can’t believe you would do this, what is wrong with you?”
All the therapeutic things that I should have said, fled in that moment. All the things I had learned in foster care classes were forgotten in a moment of revulsion and fear. Instead I had just unleashed a torrent of words that I could not take back. It was a mistake I would never repeat again, because as he stepped away from me, I saw the look on his face. “There is something wrong with me that no one can fix.” He believed in his heart that every bad thing that had happened in his five short years was his fault; he was just waiting for the next adult to confirm it.
I had reinforced the very lie that he secretly whispered to himself when he was removed from his home by the policeman. “What is wrong with you?” The lie his mind told him in the backseat of the caseworkers car as she moved him to another foster home. “You are Unlovable”. The lie that said his daddy beat his mommy and killed his brother and it was his fault. “You are Bad”. The lie that said he did not deserve to be loved. I had just said that lie out loud and I had not meant a word.
You will start to see a pattern. Each child coming into your home will have a different story, a different beginning, and will have a different end; but there is a pattern in the child’s thinking. Let us understand that one of the core effects of childhood trauma is to the child’s developing sense of self. They have an entrenched belief that they are to blame. They believe they are bad and cannot be loved. They tightrope this line of shame and pain, because most of these children from hard places have come to the same conclusion. They believe themselves to be unlovable, and all the horrible and terrible things they have lived are the result of one thing….themselves. Yes, when a baby or a child does not have their needs met, or they are hurt, they will make sense of it the only way they know how. They blame themselves. They no longer fear the monsters under the bed, because the abuse, the emotions and pain are the monster that lives inside them. And these emotions are bigger, stronger and they cannot control them or the outcomes.
Children who feel Unlovable use Behavior as their VOICE – It is maddening to parent a child who tries to share with you how very unlovable they are. You will come to moments that you want to scream and agree with them. They can drive you to the brink with the behaviors and I am sure that I could write a book with other adoptive parents about what this behavior looks like. But if you have spent any time in the trenches, you will be nodding your head yes and possibly feeling your pulse increase and your fists clench. They are looking and searching for your disapproval and anger, because it will solidify how bad and unlovable they truly feel. You know this, and every time you lose your
shit mind and lash out in frustration and anger, you know that you are reinforcing their beliefs. There will be days you lose more ground than you gain, and there will be children that will grow to adults believing they are bad.
Loving the Child who feels Unlovable – When working with a foster or adopted child, you cannot just get rid of a behavior, because 99.5% of the time you will get a worse behavior. Yes, I made that statistic up, but just trust me on this. You cannot just discipline or extinguish these behaviors, you must first seek to understand from what they are stemming. You need to separate the child from the behavior. Help the child understand that they are good, but that they sometimes do bad things. THEY ARE NOT BAD. How do you do this? You cannot react in the heat of the moment! Have a plan in place to instill this in the child. As crazy as this seems, you have to ignore the behavior and not the child. You must see through the facade of bad behaviors and see the scared and hurt child underneath.
You might have to fake it. I had to fake it, because God did not gift me with the ability to ignore poop on my walls. So right now if you are reading this because you are at the end of your rope, I’m giving you permission to fake it. You have to communicate when you are not in the heat of the moment. You have to show that you are not horrified, scared, disgusted, angry, and want to run screaming down the road because of their behavior…even if it’s poop.
Timmy did not stop smearing poop for a very long time. Yes, gross but it was how he felt about himself on the inside. What I changed that day was not his behavior, but mine. Parenting and teaching had taught me to extinguish behaviors and control situations. I had been working so incredibly hard to stop his behaviors, that I failed to see the inner struggle and pain. I should never have said. “What is wrong with you?” Instead my mind should have been asking, “What has happened to you?”
With Timmy, I learned to say, “Let’s go clean that up.” and I’d help him bleach walls and change clothes. It was messy, hard work repeatedly telling him what a wonderful and amazing boy he was, even when he tried so hard to be unlovable. With a therapist, we gave him a voice and began the long road of repairing broken self-worth. He lived with us over a year, before being adopted by a family member. I hope he still knows how worthy and valuable he is.
Resources that truly help-
How have you helped your foster or adopted child see themselves as Loveable? What resources have helped you? Please comment.