Self-Care for Foster Parents

 

If you are a foster parent, you have the innate desire to care for others. If you did not have that desire, you would have not have spent months going through several interviews and preparing your home to care for a child that you have never met. It is such a gift to have some many wonderful individuals and families opening up their homes to provide love, safety, and security to children in need. Children in foster care have experienced various kinds of trauma and often have several needs. Your foster child may have a doctor’s appointment today, visitation with a biological parent tomorrow, and therapy the day after that. Schedules can get busy and things can be hard to juggle. As a foster parent, it can be easy to neglect your own needs in order to make sure that the needs of your children are met. While taking care of your children is important, it is important to prioritize yourself and your needs as well. Here are some tips to help you practice self-care as a foster parent.

  • Find a Hobby: Find activities that you enjoy and make time to do them every day, even if it is just for a few minutes. Maybe you can take a quick jog around the neighborhood, read a book, journal your thoughts, or do a craft project. The possibilities are limitless. Find what re-energizes you and make it a priority. When you take time for yourself, you will be able to care for your children better.
  • Take Care of your needs: You are probably already running in several directions and have several appointments that you have to keep track of for your children, but make sure that you are making time for your needs as well. Do you have an appointment for yourself that you have been putting off? Do you desperately need a haircut, but you do not feel that you have any time for that? Make your needs a priority and give yourself permission to care of yourself. When your needs are met, you are better able to provide for the needs of your children.
  • Use Respite Care: Take a night or weekend off. Find trusted friends or family members that are willing to watch your children for a few hours. If you are married, take a date night. It is important for you to maintain a healthy relationship with your spouse. If you are single, take a night to yourself or go do an activity with your friends. Having a few hours to regroup, can be helpful to your emotional well-being.
  • Ask for Help: It is okay to ask for help when you need it. Find people that you trust, and let them know what you need. Several people are willing to help, but do not know what to do. Whether you need someone to watch your children for a couple of hours so you can go to an appointment or need help finding a good pediatrician or child facility, do not be afraid to ask. Also, make sure that you are communicating with your foster care worker. Let them know about your questions, concerns, and frustrations. Your foster care worker is there to help and support you.
  • Join a Support Group: Find a foster care group and join it. Several churches and community organizations have started groups specifically for foster parents. If you are a Nightlight Foster Family, our offices plan specific groups and events for foster parents as well. Contact your foster care advocate for more information. Groups are a great opportunity gain additional support and to connect with others that are going through the same process.

Being a foster parent is not always easy, but it is very rewarding. When things get hard, take a breath and remind yourself why you do what you do. Take time for yourself, take care of your needs, and ask for help and support when you need it. As a foster parent, you are doing great work and the love and compassion that you have for the kids in your care does not go unnoticed. Thank you for all that you do for the children that need you.

Ambiguous Loss and Adopted Children

Ambiguous loss is a term that defines the heartache and grief that comes with losing a person or relationship that is surrounded by confusion or uncertainty about that person or relationship.  Finding closure is difficult with normal losses, such as death, but it is impossible with ambiguous loss when the loss is not officially recognized or final.

Think about children who are unable to grow up in their biological family.  In addition to being separated from their family of origin, they lose all that is familiar to them. They experience the absence of their birth family, but know they are still present in the world. The foster or adopted child, as well as the birth family, may think about and be curious about the other. They may dream about what it would be like to be together. Adoptive parents may also experience ambiguous loss because of pregnancies that ended in miscarriage or from the loss of their dream of having biological children.  This article will focus on children, specifically as they reach school age, and begin to realize their losses. This time may bring about feelings of hurt and grief the child may have never acknowledged in the past. These losses are not commonly addressed in society and few rituals exist to allow an adoptee to express their loss.

Recently, I was talking to my teenage son, who was adopted from a Central American country as a toddler.  I talked to him about how ecstatic I was to return to the U.S. to introduce him to our family and friends, who were very happy about his arrival into our family.  At the same time, I shed tears as we flew away from his country of birth, knowing he was leaving behind his foster family, his birth family, his siblings (both foster and biological), his country of birth, first language, culture, traditions, religion, racial connections, medical history, genealogy, favorite foods, smells, etc.  I said, “We showered you with gifts and joyfulness, no one has ever talked to you about all that you lost. When someone dies, we go to their funeral and take a casserole to their family, but we’ve never really done anything to help give closure to all that you have lost.”  Even if no one dies, there is still loss in these situations.

There are two types of ambiguous loss. Type 1 is when a person is physically absent but psychologically present, meaning that the birth parent continues to influence the child’s thoughts, emotions, behaviors, identity and family unity. Type 2 is when there is a psychological absence with a physical presence.  This can be due to a mental or physical illness or a substance abuse problem.  This sometimes leads to Type 1 when the child is removed from the parent due to neglect.

Ambiguous loss has some warning signs that can look different from the normal response to grief throughout life stages:

  • When an infant or toddler is grieving, it is normal to show some separation anxiety.  However, if your foster or adopted child in this age range shows behavioral regression, confusion, or night terrors, it could be attributed to ambiguous loss.
  • School age children typically have difficulty identifying and expressing their emotions related to grief so they experience physical complaints such as stomachaches or headaches and show increased irritability.  Warning signs include acting-out behaviors, a loss of interest in school, teachers seeing poor concentration, regression, night terrors or an obsession with retelling.
  • Normal reactions to loss in adolescents is very similar to adults. They frequently experience feelings of guilt and often look to peers for support.  If you see a change in their energy level, poor concentration, loss of interest in school or if they seem emotionally numb or start to withdraw, these are warning signs of grieving ambiguous losses.  Signs of depression and anxiety, an inability to cope, difficulty with change and transitions, difficulty making decisions, decreased ability to cope with routine childhood or teenage losses, and PTSD symptoms are common responses.  The child may display learned helplessness or hopelessness or have feelings of guilt.

Ambiguous loss is overwhelming and confusing because the outcomes are not clear and cannot be determined.  The foster child or adoptee has trouble pressing forward because the loss lacks resolution – it’s unknown if it is temporary or final.  They want transparency about their past but at the same time refrain from receiving new information.  Ambiguity can wear away a child’s sense of mastery causing them to feel hopeless and creating feelings that the world is biased, dangerous, unpredictable and unruly. The stress of ambiguity, or vagueness, can be eased by helping the child acquire information.

The effect of unresolved loss on children can be great.  The bigger the ambiguity surrounding the child’s life, the more challenge they will have in mastering it.  In other words, increased uncertainties make it difficult to deal with the loss and has potential to cause increased depression, anxiety and internal conflict.  They can feel a lack of control over their situation or feel that people outside their family have more power than their parents.  Anxiety and fear can have a great influence if they were “taken away” or removed from their home, family, or country of origin. The child sometimes feels that they are the reason for the separation from their parents and have lost their ability to trust adults.  We can help influence a child’s reactions by validating their grief, inviting them to express their feelings, sharing similar experiences of other children and accepting the child’s spectrum of feelings.

Here are some ways to help your child deal with ambiguous loss:

  • Give voice!  Explain the feelings of ambiguous loss and acknowledge the difficulty of living with not having the answers.
  • Help the child understand as much as possible – Knowing what happened to the birth parent who left and why, or knowing what situations caused the loss and why it happened are key in helping the child understand.  This will allow the child to grieve which involves experiencing the painful feelings associated with the loss.
  • Help the child identify what has been lost – parent, extended family, loss of home or town where they were born, family that looks like them, last name, birth country, language, etc.
  • Find a way to commemorate the loss – Honor, recognize and acknowledge the memory of the people, places and things that are no longer part of the child’s daily life.  This leads to moving forward and permits the child to learn that the pain of grief lessens and the legacy of their past lies within themselves.
  • Create a “loss box” – find a box that can be decorated, if desired, and allow you child to place things inside the box that represent things that they have lost.  This can serve as a ritual and a way to revisit the losses in the future.
  • Events through the lifetime (holidays, birthdays, adoption anniversary, etc) can trigger feelings of loss.  Acknowledge the child’s feelings and add a family ritual to recognize important people or relationships that have been lost.  Example: Adding an extra candle on the birthday cake to represent the child’s birth family; or say “I bet your mom and dad are thinking about you today”.
  • Do not allow new relationships to be a replacement for past relationships.  Acknowledge your child’s birth parents and their previous foster families.  Look for ways to recognize members of their birth family.  Share their story and talk about it from the time they arrive home and continue this over time.  We can free our children from the past by giving opportunities to process and grieve their past losses.
  • Give your child permission to grieve without guilt!
  • Model ways for them to communicate their thoughts and the questions they may have.
  • Support your child’s emotions as he copes with his grief – It is impossible for us to fix the loss but we can validate and affirm their feelings.
  • Don’t expect that grief associated with ambiguous loss can be resolved within a specific time frame.  Understand and explain that these feelings will come and go at different times in life.  Always provide a safe place for your child to express those feelings.
  • Get in touch with your own grief!
  • Seek support from a therapist who is an adoption-competent professional.

While I have heard the term “ambiguous loss” for several years working in adoption, I’ve become passionate about the topic after sharing the term and the theory with my son.  I honestly feel like it was a turning point in his life and our relationship.  He understands that I know he has questions to which we have no answers and that I am familiar with some of what he has lost.  He knows that not having answers makes figuring out who he is, as well as the grief process, more difficult.  I’m pretty sure he identifies me as his safe place when he needs to express his feelings.  I’ve told him if he wants to search for his birth family to try to get more answers, I’ll be his biggest supporter.  I have more work to do to help him through his grief and loss and I understand there will be triggers as he grows and matures.  Having an understanding of ambiguous loss and the ability to explain it to him was a big step in the right direction.  I encourage you to start talking to your kids as soon as they are placed in your home and keep talking, especially as they reach adolescence, when it becomes increasingly more difficult.

By: Dana Poynter

Parents Education Beyond Required Training Hours

Fourteen hours… That is the number of training hours that the state required of my husband and me before adopting our first child from foster care. In fourteen hours we learned why children come into care and how that experience may manifest in the behavior of the child. We learned that there is loss, grief, and trauma in adoption and we learned about A LOT of policies and procedures.  What we did not learn was how much we didn’t know.

 

Thirteen years later I can assure you that fourteen hours could not possibly have adequately prepared us for the job of parenting, particularly parenting an adopted child.

 

Those fourteen hours did not prepare me for the tough questions that always seem to come from the backseat of the car. They did not prepare me for knowing when and how to share the tough parts of his story. They did not prepare me for the identity issues he would face as a bi-racial child living in a white family. Though they taught us about trauma, they did not prepare us for it to manifest years later or how to explain that to others. They did not prepare us for handling the effects of prenatal exposure that did not manifest themselves until adolescence and puberty. And NO training of any kind for any parent could adequately prepare you to parent through puberty and the teenage years! (Oh the smell of teenage boys!)

 

Fourteen hours gives you just a glimpse into your journey as a parent and most importantly lets you know that you still have a lifetime of learning ahead.  There is no easy path and no magic manual that spells it all out for you, however, there are a few things I have learned over the last thirteen years that have helped tremendously.

 

  • Find your community. From day one of our adoption journey we have been intentional about surrounding ourselves with other adoptive families. Some of these families have privately adopted and some have adopted from foster care. Many have children in the same age range as our son and some are farther along on their journey. We have learned from each other and supported each other. Sharing resources, having an ear to listen, and a shoulder to cry on have been some of the biggest blessings of finding our adoptive community. They remind me that I am not crazy and I am not alone.
  • Every age and stage is different. As our adopted kids grow and mature, so do their questions. Not only do the questions change, but our responses have to as well.  What my son could understand and emotionally process at age five is very different from what he can understand and process as a teenager. Educating yourself about the emotional development of children will help you know what to share and when. It is their story and they have a right to know, but sometimes they need just enough for right now.
  • Trauma is real. As beautiful as adoption is, the reality is that there is real grief and loss. Even if your child came to you as a newborn or infant, they have experienced great loss. To be the best advocate for your child, adoptive parents need to understand trauma and the effect that it has on their child. Educate yourself about trauma!
  • Give yourself a break! Don’t reinvent the wheel. Parenting is hard!  None of us have it figured out. Read, read, and read some more. Find blogs that you connect with. Find print or online magazines that share both professional and personal articles about adoption. Follow adoption agencies like Nightlight. Glean from those that have been there.

Fourteen hours… That is how long it will take you to figure out that this journey will be a lifelong learning experience.

Celebrating the Holidays with Foster Children

For many people, Christmas is a fun and joyous time, full of eager anticipation for the presents under the tree and the traditions we are so used to.  For children in foster care, however, this time of year can be anxiety-inducing, full of negative memories, and a time of change as you move between homes.  As foster parents, you have the opportunity to change how a child feels around the holidays, and positively impact their perception of the days we all hold dear. This doesn’t come easily, and it will require you to hold your traditions and expectations with an open hand as they may look different.  This is a great opportunity to ask the children in your home what their traditions may be and see if it is possible to incorporate those into your home.

In order to help ease children into the holidays here are some ideas to consider:

  1. If the anticipation of unknown gifts is too hard for your child to comprehend let them in on the secrets! Maybe opening a gift a day in advent style fashion would make it less overwhelming, or letting the child know of some of the specific gifts that they will receive so that they don’t have to worry about what it may be.
  2. Help the child buy gifts for their family of origin. Part of their concern may be that their parents, siblings, or family members will not receive gifts as they do. Help ease this concern by allowing them to purchase or create gifts to give to their loved ones.
  3. Do not pressure them into participating in group activities. If being around large groups is too overwhelming, let them stay at a distance or let them take frequent breaks.
  4. If you have a relationship with the biological family, ask them what some of their traditions are. Maybe this year you have a specific breakfast on Christmas morning that they are use to having around the holidays.
  5. If the children in your home celebrate a different holiday, take the time to research and learn about how to celebrate them. Do not be afraid to ask for help and find unique ways to incorporate new things into your home.

 

The holidays will look different as new children enter your home, and while it can add additional stress and excitement it can also be full of memories and hope.  Watch for signs that they are struggling and do not be afraid to talk to them about these worries. At the end of the day the goal is to support them and help them feel safe and secure, and that may mean making small sacrifices and adjusting the way you do things this time of year.  You may get one holiday with a foster child, or it may be the first of many, so work with them to make it a time to celebrate and enjoy together.

By: Morgan Pauley

Resources for Encouraging a Good Night of Sleep

Sleep is essential. I think all of us can attest to the havoc that ensues when we are unable to get a good night’s rest. We find ourselves struggling to stay awake and alert. We may be a little more on edge than usual. We have trouble focusing and making decisions. For kids in foster care, problems with sleep are very common. Why is that you may ask? Simply put, kids who have experienced trauma have brains that are over-functioning and on high alert. Thus, they may have trouble falling or staying asleep. Their brains just don’t “shut off” as easily. When these kids are repeatedly unable to get enough sleep, problematic behaviors can arise, such as impulsivity, irritability, and inattentiveness. Thankfully, there are several ways foster parents can encourage good sleep for kids in their care. Dr. Kendra Krietsch, a pediatric psychologist at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, presented on several helpful strategies, which are summarized below:

  1. Gather information about the child’s past sleep patterns.

Make contact with the child’s previous caregivers and ask about the child’s typical bedtime routine, whether they struggled with falling asleep or waking up at night, and any items that brought them comfort while sleeping. If you learn, for instance, that there was a really special teddy bear or a book they enjoyed reading before bed, this can be a good opportunity to provide consistency in an otherwise unpredictable situation.

  1. Create a sleep environment that promotes comfort, safety, and health.

Within reason, allow the child to have a voice in regards to how their room is set up so that they can help create a space that feels comfortable to them. As long as it is safe, provide access to stuffed animals, soft blankets, and pillows that the child can snuggle with at night. For children 2 years and younger, ensure that the ABCs of safe sleep are followed. They should sleep alone, on their backs, and in an empty crib.  Other suggestions include keeping the temperature in the home 70 degrees or cooler, turning on a white noise machine to eliminate some other noises in the home that may be disruptive, adjusting lighting based on the preferences of the child, keeping phones and tablets out of the bedroom, and incorporating, instead, things that the child finds relaxing, such as soft music or special blankets or keepsakes.

  1. Create a predictable daytime schedule to encourage good sleep.

Ensure the child eats three meals a day at predictable times. Have the child change from pajamas to daytime clothes after waking. Encourage the child to stay out of bed until bedtime, unless naps are appropriate. Provide opportunities for the child to get outside and increase their exposure to light during the day. Allow the child to spend an allotted amount of time on electronic devices during the day and set a curfew for when they are turned off at night. If the child in your home finds comfort from watching a show before bed and has not yet found alternative ways to calm down at night, provide opportunities for them to watch shows that are calm rather than overly stimulating and try increasing the physical distance between the child and the device (i.e. watching television rather than a tablet that is right in front of them).

  1. Establish a bedtime routine that is predictable and enjoyable.

Choose a specific time to start a bedtime routine and stick with it. Dim the lights, play some calming music, use quiet voices, and avoid conflict if possible. Find and incorporate a couple activities right before bed that the child really enjoys, such as taking a bath, playing a board game, or reading books. Consider utilizing a visual cue card so that the child can see what comes next. Be intentional about following the same routine each night. All of these tips promote predictability and help give the child a sense of control before bed.

  1. Model a healthy sleep culture within your home.

Consider your own sleep patterns and make adjustments when necessary. How do you talk about sleep in the home? Are you getting enough sleep? Have you created a bedtime routine for yourself that you feel good about modeling for a child placed into your care?

Here is a link to Dr. Krietsch’s full presentation, as well as some other resources with additional tips for recognizing problems with sleep and encouraging healthy sleep patterns for kids in your care:

Sleep Issues with Adopted Kids (Creating a Family)

Effective Ways to Deal with Sleep Issues (Karyn Purvis, Empowered to Connect)

Is it Disobedience or Lack of Sleep? (Honestly Adoption Podcast)

 

By: Kara Long

How to Manage Sibling Rivalry at Placement

Sibling rivalry is a common and typical occurrence among siblings. There is an innate desire for siblings to compete, challenge, and squabble. Children who grow up in the same home together, whether by birth, adoption or foster care learn how to manage their future relationships through these early interactions with siblings. A healthy and supportive family environment gives children opportunities to learn to resolve differences and develop stronger relationships that they can use in other areas of their lives as they grow up.

When a child joins a family through adoption they come with a history of trauma, and parents should anticipate and prepare for some difficulties in sibling dynamics. By understanding their trauma history, parents can prepare and make safety plans to address issues that may arise. For example, if a child has a history of physical abuse or has been exposed to violence, a safety plan should be in place to protect all children in the home from aggression and additional trauma.

Establishing a new sibling relationship will not necessarily come easily or effortlessly. Here are a few ways that parents can promote healthy relationships among siblings:

  • Carefully examine the motivation behind adopting and set realistic expectations. The primary reason behind adopting shouldn’t be to provide a playmate for your child. If there are children in the home already, help them to understand there may be some difficulties, adjustments, and struggles to adding a child to their family through adoption.
  • Have a plan and explain to your children how you will manage sharing attention among children. Children in the home may feel like their new sibling requires too much attention from their parents during the transition. Encourage open communication and encourage them to talk to you about their feelings.
  • Focus on creating positive early interactions between children. A good first impressions can set a relationship up for success from the beginning. Take into consideration the time of day and regular routine of the children before introducing them for the first time. Don’t introduce them to their new sibling when they are exhausted, hungry, dysregulated or distracted.
  • Reserve time each day to spend time one on one with each child. Attachment specialist encourage adoptive parents to use the 10-20-10 approach, which recommends giving each child 10 minutes of quality time and attention in the morning to start the day on a positive note, 20 minutes in the afternoon to process through any experiences from the day, and 10 minutes in the evening before bed.
  • Encourage healthy competition, playing fair, and good sportsmanship. Teach appropriate social skills such as negotiation, compromise and emotional regulations when conflicts arise.
  • Practice and model appropriate problem-solving skills and empower children to solve their conflicts independently. As children mature try to intervene less in sibling arguments allowing them to work out issues on their own.
  • If family or friends want to bring a gift for your new child, suggest that they also bring a small gift for the existing children in the home as well. Adoption is a big change for everyone in the household and a special gift or attention can help with the transition.
  • Prepare for possible developmental regression in both the current children in the household and adopted children.

Connection and relationship building takes time. Close, healthy relationships do not develop overnight and relationships change over time. Some siblings are close when they are younger and others do not establish a good relationship until they’re adults. If there are significant concerns regarding sibling rivalry reach out to an attachment therapist.  There may be deeper issues that need to be processed. An attachment therapist can also provide more activities or suggestions on how to promote positive attachment between siblings.

By: Angela Simpson

Book Review: The Connected Parent

A Book Review by Dana Poynter of “The Connected Parent: Real-Life Strategies for Building Trust and Attachment” authored by Karyn Purvis, PhD and Lisa Qualls with Emmelie Pickett

 

Several Nightlight employees, including myself, through a grant from Show Hope, had the privilege of becoming TBRI trained in 2012 by Dr. Karyn Purvis herself!  Nine years later, this continues to be a highlight of training as an adoption professional.  It is our intention that all Nightlight clients become familiar with the letters “TBRI” which stand for Trust-Based Relational Intervention and receive an introduction and understanding of what it means to be TBRI trained as they begin their adoption journey.  As part of our Parent Education process, we require Nightlight clients read The Connected Child by Dr. Karyn Purvis and Dr. David Cross, the best-selling book in the category of adoption.  It is our belief that much can be learned from their thorough research and resources on attaching with and parenting children from “hard places”, a term coined by Dr. Purvis.

When Dr. Purvis passed away in the Spring of 2016, after a long hard-fought battle with cancer, we at Nightlight, along with others familiar with her research, mourned her loss.  When The Connected Parent was released in 2020, so many of us were excited to get our hands on a new resource backed by Dr. Purvis.

Lisa Qualls had approached Dr. Purvis about co-authoring a book wherein Ms. Qualls would explain how she used TBRI principles with her own children who were adopted.  What transpired was a wonderful parenting guide for families who are parenting children who come from difficult beginnings.  By combining Dr. Purvis’ research and strategies and Ms. Qualls (and others) real life situations, even more practical information is given for handling difficult parenting moments.  The book not only shares advice on how to approach and direct children, but also how to help them heal.

The book is easy to read with short chapters ending with key takeaways and simple ideas of strategies to try “today”.  The chapters are organized into three parts. The first part delves into understanding attachment.  As always, TBRI focuses on a child’s cycle of attachment while also encouraging parents to consider their own history of attachment and the effects on current relationships.  The second part addresses real life strategies, which include but is not limited to using scripts, nurturing practices, teaching respect, recognizing sensory concerns and adapting the strategies for all age groups.  Part three reminds parents the importance of caring for themselves and applying the Empower, Connect, Correct strategies in their own lives to maintain hope and strength through the journey.

This book will remain in my personal collection of adoption references to be used as a guide in parenting my children from hard places.

Before You Foster: Ways to Prepare Your Children and Family

Often, I hear couples talk about how they would like to foster ‘someday’. I was the same way, always wanting to adopt or foster one day. Helping children in hard places is something that is close to the hearts of many, but it feels like such a big life altering step that less end up taking those steps towards actually doing it, than those that think about that ‘someday’. There is so much to learn and do before that child or sibling set comes into your home, but as a foster mom myself, I can tell you that each step is worth it! If you are thinking about fostering in the next few years, here are some important starter points that will help you thrive once ‘someday’ becomes a reality.

Pour into your marriage, because you can’t pour love out of an empty cup. Children that have experienced trauma will need a lot of focused love and care that will stretch both you and your partner. The relationship struggles that were manageable before, often become significantly more challenging while couples are fostering. Pour into this relationship, date each other, and have those hard conversations you’ve both been putting off before you decide to bring a child into your home. This is not a situation where “we will deal with that later” will benefit either of you. The strong relationship between you two will be the foundation that these children can stand on to begin their healing.

Dive deep into your own healing journey before you take in those that need healing. Foster care goes beyond traditional parenting. Parents have to constantly adapt to changes in the case, in the child, and in what works to help their child heal and thrive. You may be surprised at how the difficulties in your past find their way back up to the surface. Spend some focused time looking at the difficulties you have already walked through and the coping skills that worked well, along with those that didn’t. We highly recommend that parents have a therapist that they connect with at least monthly while they are fostering.

Assure you have a supportive community. You cannot thrive in foster care and loving vulnerable youth while remaining in the walls of your home. That community becomes necessary really fast, when you need to get away from the house, or have someone give you even an hour or two of a break from the important work you are doing. Many foster parents think that they will be able to shoulder the weight all on their own, but later find how much they needed others to hold them up. A larger community just means that there are more people to love the children in your life, and provide things that even you can’t.

Pray for discernment and love as you begin your journey. Emotions tend to be very difficult to control when you are fostering. You may think you immediately will fall in love with the child or siblings coming into your home, only to find that bonding is a struggle. It is important to pray together for discernment as you hear about children needing a foster home, this commitment will be incredibly important to them, and damaging if it falls apart. Know that your life will be very different for at least a year from the point of saying yes, and pray to love the child(ren) that enter your home just a little bit more each day they are with you. Those prayers matter and will help strengthen you when things are difficult.

If you have children in your home already, bring them along in the learning process. Nightlight has training videos available for your kids to learn more about foster care, including coloring books that talk about what foster care is! Foster care is a very grown up topic, but children can be surprisingly adept in understanding what is going on when taught in a child friendly way. A lot of parents have reservations about fostering to protect the children currently in their home. Experienced foster parents often comment on how great it has been for their biological children, and a great way to grow empathy. We recommend reaching out to your Foster Care Advocate for training resources to help you bring your children along on this journey, because they can help children in foster care heal too!

 

written by Deb Uber

Love Language Within the World of Trauma

 

Love languages and the knowledge of different ways to communicate love have gradually increased in popularity over the past few years. It can be especially important for children who have experienced trauma to be able to receive love in a way that they understand and can receive without fear. This can be particularly complicated when the child you are caring for may potentially have a love language that was abused through traumatic memories. Children who have experienced abuse or neglect may react differently to love languages that are spoken by their foster or parents through adoption. Here are some things to keep in mind for each love language with some alternatives that may feel more secure for a child who has experienced abuse in an area where they have a predominate love language.

As an overall reminder, young children between 0-6 rarely have a set love language and need each language to fill their bucket until a clear preference starts to show as their personality develops. This is the recommended starting point for all children and youth of all ages when they first come into your home, even the 17 year olds. Children who experienced trauma at a young age may have never had a consistent or attentive caregiver. It will be important to communicate each language consistently while you are bonding, and well after they begin to trust you and push boundaries. It may feel as if you are starting with an infant and working your way up, but this is a good sign. With safety and connection in place, often their language will develop into one or two predominate preferences. This can take years, or happen quickly depending on the child and their past experiences. If your child is rejecting certain languages, do not assume that they do not receive love that way. It is possibly a sign that they were extremely hurt before in that area, and they need extra care, attention, and patience before they will feel comfortable letting anyone touch, affirm, help, give gifts to them or spending one on one time with them again.

Physical Touch. This language has a lot of capacity for abuse, especially for children who were either neglected and left alone for significant amounts of time, or those who were physically hurt by their parents. Often kids experience both, which can make a child crave physical touch while at the same time being frightened of it and left struggling to relax when they are receiving physical contact. The goal then becomes safe touch and a lot of patience. We recommend looking through handheld therapeutic acupressure tools and helping your child pick one or two they may like to try. If deep pressure does not appeal to them they may prefer something like a paint brush or using a soft brush to make predictable circles on their arm as they relax. You may even introduce cuddling during a movie where there can be a pillow as a barrier. This provides enough felt safety while still meeting their needs. You may also want to consider a pet like a cat, dog or rabbit for some children who can cuddle something that has not caused physical harm to them in the past and keep your own touches to their shoulder or arm and only for specific purposes like when you are teaching them to cook or a sport. Be especially cautious with situations where family members may be requesting good bye hugs, as forced contact may be uncomfortable and feel unsafe for children and youth. Eventually, your child will feel more comfortable letting their guard down around specific caregivers and may request a lot of physical contact or even seem extremely needy in this area. This is a great sign! Be patient, they are catching up for lost time. Many parents intentionally will rock much older children as a reminder of the contact they should have received in infancy, but missed out on.

Words of Affirmation: Children who prefer verbal affirmation to receive love may have come from emotionally and verbally abusive homes where they were told they were stupid, selfish, or screamed obscenities at. This is particularly destructive to their self-esteem, as they can easily develop the belief that they are a bad child, unlovable, or a waste of space. Grand statements of “you are amazing” will feel fake to children who have a damaged self-esteem. Instead we recommend starting with a softer approach. When you are around your child, try pointing out exactly what they are doing, just notice it. For instance, if you are with a child who is playing with Legos, let them lead and avoid asking questions but make comments about what they are doing and mix those comments with gentle compliments. “I see you are building a ship there” “you are making your ship blue” “you are great at building Legos” “I love how gently you play with your toys”. Pick a time of the day where you can focus on using these types of statements and compliments, even 5 minutes a day. This will help with bonding while also showing them that they are seen and heard. Eventually they will become more receptive to hearing compliments to you outside of that concentrated time of play. You may be surprised at how many affirmations that it can take to start making a dent in the damage that was done before they came to your home, but it is well worth the effort. This is also important with youth and older teens, but they may be more aware that you are choosing specific times to concentrate on this, so it will need to be broken up throughout the day.

Quality Time: Is your child stuck to you like a little barnacle and afraid to be alone? They may have missed out on a lot of quality time as they moved home to home in foster homes with a ton of kids, group homes, or orphanages. Often these group settings have few caregiver and a lot of kids who need care, so a healthy need for quality time and attention becomes a fear that they will not have their needs met if they are ever left alone. Usually parents underestimate the amount of concentrated quality time that a child needs to fill their bucket, 15 minutes a day per parent. For these kids, schedule that time in and make it a priority that you will sit down with them to play for 15 minutes, even if you need to use a timer. Put your phone and other distractions away and let them lead the play, comment on what they are doing, affirm them, go along with their goofy antics. That consistent 15 minutes a day will have a bigger impact on them than you may realize. With it, they will be more open to you scheduling in your own self-care where you can step away for a mommy or daddy break and your own 15 minutes of rest. With patience and time their fears of not having their needs met will shift to trust.

Acts of Service: Neglect is one of the biggest factors for children who have experienced abuse in this particular love language. If your child is parentified, it is a good sign that this language is of particular importance to them. They may have had a parent who completely ignored their needs, and so they turned to meeting others needs and caring for them in the hopes that it would earn them love and safety so that their own needs could finally be met. They are likely to be particularly combative about anyone doing things for them, because their trust has been so damaged in this area. One of your first steps is to acknowledge all of the hard work that your child has done to care for those around them, because it is likely that their siblings and past caregivers took it for granted. Take time to do those extra touches that parents do for younger children, especially for older kids who can reasonably do these things on their own. Make homemade lunches for them, help clean their room when they aren’t looking, and sit next to them while they are working on their homework to offer assistance. They may not show that they appreciate this, but it speaks louder than you may believe. These are often the kids that don’t show their trauma, or get forgotten because they are so busy taking care of everyone else, and aren’t showing their need in an obvious way. In reality they need their love language spoken just as much, if not more than the kids that they were always taking care of.

Gifts: This language is consistently misunderstood in adults and children, so taking time to understand what that language is about is particularly important. Gifts as a love language is more about having something tangible to know that someone was thinking of you when you were not physically around, and that they care enough to listen and know what you like. This is not about the cost, it’s about the “I was thinking about you”. There is particular room for abuse of this love language as abusive caregivers may have used gifts as an apology for abuse, or even in grooming. In those situations, gifts that were supposed to be about “I care about you” were really about “I want something from you, and I know you like this”. This can be devastating to the psyche of a child who may come to believe that the only way they can receive love is to please their caregiver regardless of if that causes them physical and emotional harm. This also can create a lot of manipulative tendencies in children who are simply trying to get their needs met and feel loved.

Parents of children from hard places should focus on small gifts given consistently over time, and do not stop providing love this way when your child has messed up. This doesn’t have to cost anything, try picking a flower for them, painting a small rock, drawing a picture for them, or even taking them to the dollar store to pick their own gift out. You will want to avoid rewarding manipulation, and instead give these gifts when they are least expecting it and are entirely removed from difficult or good behaviors. The main goal is consistently speaking this language in small ways with no strings attached.

Children who have dealt with trauma often feel as if it is their fault. This causes a loss of self-esteem and eventually, the child may believe that they cannot be loved. Love languages are a way to show you care, you are there for them, and that they are loved. In the beginning, the child who does not believe they can be loved, will be hesitant with you and become potentially suspicious as to what you are doing. Don’t take it personally, be consistent, be patient, encourage self-esteem, and be emotionally and physically available for them. We recommend working with a reputable therapist if possible as you work through each love language, especially if you child finds a specific love language to be triggering.

Our favorite kids tool for speaking all of these love languages? Melissa & Doug Scratch Art Notes can be used for safe physical touch (helping kids learn to sketch things out, soft touches on the shoulder or sitting close by a child while you sketch together), Words of Affirmation (encouraging notes left all around the house or in lunch boxes) Quality time (drawing together), acts of service (little notes left behind after you helped do a chore they don’t always enjoy), and gifts (little drawings or gifting a card and scratcher for them to play with at school in their free time).

 

written by Natalie Burton & Deb Uber

 

How to Promote Your Child’s Development of Self-Regulation

Self-regulation is comprised of a variety of abilities that allow someone to understand delayed gratification, focus and shift their attention between tasks, and control one’s emotions and behaviors.  Self-regulation allows a child to resist impulsive behaviors and outbursts, cheer themselves up when feeling down, and respond appropriately to different scenarios, consequently allowing them better control over their behavior and their life.  Developing this skill takes time and practice, and as you can probably guess, directly impacts social interactions and success at school and work.

In the world of international adoption, many children spend the early years of their lives without the consistent one-on-one support and mentoring that is so important to the development of complex reasoning and thinking… directly affecting their ability to self-regulate.  However, it is never too late to teach a child self-regulation strategies.  These abilities are practiced and developed through continuous social interactions across one’s lifespan.  This is great news for all parents, as this means that self-regulation can be taught and practiced through formal and informal interactions and environments at any age.

So what can you do to help your child develop these important life skills?

First things first. Teach your child about different emotions and how to identify and label them.  This might entail pictures of different faces, voicing your feelings out loud as they come up, and helping your child to verbally label theirs.  Facilitate discussions with your child about these emotions, for example, “Did you throw that toy because you were frustrated?” and help them formulate appropriate responses, “What else could you do if you’re feeling frustrated?”  This provides a gateway to brainstorming appropriate ways to react in future scenarios.  Try asking pointed questions to allow your child to arrive at an appropriate response, such as, “Could you ask for help?” or “What if you tried to play with this toy instead?”

Strategy Tool Box. When self-regulating, it’s important for children to have a “tool box” with different strategies for calming themselves down.  These strategies take time to test out and practice, as different strategies will work for different children, but here are a few calm-down techniques to teach to your child:

  • Take a mental/physical break: walk away from the situation, find a quiet place to sit and breathe, read a book, listen to music, walk a lap around the room
  • Take a spiritual break: pray, use deep breathing exercises, practice a yoga pose
  • Engage in a sensory experience: draw, cuddle under a weighted blanket, play with playdough
  • Engage in positive self-talk: repeat a short, affirming phrase or mantra
  • Seek social support: talk to an adult or friend, ask for help

 

Self Talk. A major contributor to good self-regulation is a child’s use of self-talk.  Through self-talk, children repeat various lessons and sayings from adults to themselves when making decisions and reacting to different situations.  To support your child’s use of self-talk, break down different scenarios to them, talking them through how you analyze and think about a situation, and provide them with short and simple rules and coping skills that they can repeat to themselves when needed, such as, “When I get mad, take a deep breath” or “I can have dessert after my homework is done”.

Simple Play. Children learn many life lessons through simple play.  Even older children and adolescents benefit from one-on-one play with an adult.  This is a great time to model appropriate interactions and reactions with your child, and to exhibit different coping skills.  For example, during pretend-play, your child might pretend that a doll or loved one passes away.  This is an excellent time to verbally walk through appropriate processing and response to grief with a statement such as, “Oh no, I’m so sad that my puppy died, I’m really going to miss him, I think I need a hug”.  With older children, similar lessons can be learned through more age-appropriate scenarios, such as playing and losing at a game or role-playing different scenarios, “Oh man, I really thought I was going to win!  But that’s okay, I can’t win every time.  Hopefully I win next time!” and “How could you respond if you try really hard at a game but lose?”

Model. Children learn from what they see and experience.  Make sure to regulate your own emotions when disciplining and interacting with your child.  It is okay to vocalize “I’m really upset right now, I need to walk away and count to ten to calm down before we talk”.  Do your best to stay calm and maintain a firm and even tone when disciplining or redirecting a child.  This helps with modeling, as well as maintaining a safe and positive environment that your child feels comfortable making mistakes and learning in.

Adjust Expectations. When disciplining and speaking to your child, it is always important to respect and listen to them.  Pay close attention to their attempts at communicating and validate their emotions and concerns, regardless of how they express them.  It can be easy to forget the developmental level that your child is thinking and reacting at, but adjust your expectations as necessary to meet their current level, rather than the level you want them to be functioning at.

Clear Limits and Expectations. Children need regular reminders of rules and expectations and benefit from immediate, specific, and direct responses when their behaviors are out of line.  Rather than only focusing on what your child should not do, follow-up with redirecting the child to appropriate activities that meet their needs and offer simple choices for them to choose from.  This teaches your child what acceptable options they have and gives them some control over their life.  For example, “We don’t scream in the house because it hurts our ears, but if you want to use your voice we can sing a song, or you can play and scream outside”.

Shower with Praise. Keep in mind that learning these important skills is a challenging task and takes years to develop and fine-tune.  It is easy for children and adolescents to grow weary, so be sure to shower your child in praise and celebration as they successfully navigate tasks and situations appropriately.  Offer mental breaks and opportunities for your child to choose the activity when you see them getting frustrated or tired, alternating challenging tasks with fun activities.

Importance of Environment. The environment can have huge impacts on a child’s behavior and development.  Many emotional outbursts stem from your child feeling a lack of control but there are many things you can do to avoid this:

Investigate triggers and make accommodations. If your child has more difficulty regulating their emotions and behaviors in certain environments, cue into what could be causing this and make environmental accommodations.

  • Is there a TV or radio in the background that is distracting or overwhelming your child? Turn it off or find a quiet place for your child to go to.
  • Are bright lights or UV lights over-stimulating? Many children with sensory processing disorders and sensory sensitivities react negatively to artificial lighting and benefit from natural lighting provided by windows or soft-white lightbulbs.
  • Does your child have a harder time regulating their behaviors when exposed to loud noises or busy hustle and bustle? Consider noise-cancelling headphones, or a weighted blanket or object to ground and comfort them when exposed to these stressful triggers.

Provide a structured and predictable schedule and routine.  Walk your child through this routine often and give them warnings ahead of time to remind them of what comes next, “After we eat breakfast, we need to brush our teeth then go to school” and “After this TV show is over it’s time to work on your homework”.  For some children, it’s best to have a printed or picture schedule that they can refer to throughout the day or week.

 

Helping your child learn to self-regulate will ultimately benefit you, your child, and their overall well-being, happiness and success throughout their life.  Remember that the more your child practices regulating themselves, the easier it is for them to interact appropriately in various scenarios.   To ensure their ultimate success, offer numerous opportunities for your child to think through and talk about their emotions and interactions, and provide boundless, loving support.  With time and patience, you can pave the way for your child’s future successes.

 

For further information on self-regulation and parenting tips, check out the following resources:

https://positivepsychology.com/self-regulation/

https://raisingchildren.net.au/toddlers/behaviour/understanding-behaviour/self-regulation

https://www.foothillsacademy.org/community-services/parent-education/parent-articles/self-regulation-difficulties