There is no doubt about it. Caring for traumatized children is no small task. Between dealing with the child’s behaviors, case workers, birth parents, and life’s other normal difficulties, one can easily get overwhelmed. Being a foster parent alone is inviting messy and exhausting circumstances into your life. Forget what you have going on personally. Forget what still distresses you from your past, from your marriage, or from your own children. Just by choosing to be a foster parent you will have more than enough stress in your life. Caring for these children and advocating for their best interests is not a walk on the beach.
This is not to say you have to have a past free of trauma or that you can’t have sources of stress in your life while you’re a foster parent. That would be unrealistic. In fact, the fact that you are a survivor of trauma is going to be an important tool you can use for the healing of others. You will have a deeper and more empathetic understanding for what the children in our care are going through. However, healing is the key. You have to ask yourself: Have I healed? Have I resolved my emotions about my experiences? Did you just “move past” the traumatic event and go on living your life trying to forget it? Have you ever told anyone about it? Are you comfortable speaking about it? All of these questions are good ones to ask yourself to think about whether or not you are ready. If you haven’t even talked about and coped with your own trauma, how can you expect to teach a child in your home how to cope with theirs?
Healing can sometimes be an elusive thing. It comes in cycles usually over multiple years, and even when we think we have reached a new understanding, the scab is ripped off bringing pain anew. Healing almost always involves forgiveness. Forgiveness doesn’t always mean we need to reconcile with someone. It often means we forgive someone privately, releasing the bitterness we have towards them or the situation we were involved in. I can’t tell you how often a foster parent is utterly convinced that they have moved past a previous traumatic event, and then they are placed with foster children and that wound comes up fresh.
Notice that I said past AND present events. If your present home life is chaotic, unpredictable, unstructured, or extremely stressful, unfortunately it is probably not the right time to foster. Distress refers to the fact that it interferes with your day-to-day ability to function in life’s normal and mundane tasks.
Dysregulated adults cannot help dysregulated children.
In the words of Bruce Perry, “To calm a frightened child, you must first calm yourself.”
Anyone who has ever watched children for more than a couple hours knows how quickly frustrated emotions you never knew were present can erupt out of you. You say things and do things you told yourself you would never say/do before you had kids and you watched others on the sideline. This is especially true for children in foster care because they tend to act out of fear, not out of trust. It creates a deep frustration in you as you are loving this child and caring for their every need, but they still hit you, run from you, disobey you, etc. because they don’t yet trust you. In addition, children who expect abuse from adults will often try to cause that abuse to happen so that they can have back some kind of control over their lives.
Another Bruce Perry quote illustrates this perfectly; “Children prefer the certainty of misery rather than the misery of uncertainty.”
Your life doesn’t have to be perfect (impossible) or completely stress free (even more impossible) but it does have to be strong enough to bear up under more stress. You and your spouse have to be able and willing to make space, time and energy to commit to someone else’s healing. If now is the time that you need to focus on your own, it’s probably not the right time yet.
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