Denial is toxic in foster parenting
It may seem more comfortable to try to deny your foster child’s past. After all, how could your foster child benefit from digging up awful memories? Though adults may sometimes prefer to forget about things that bother them, children are not equipped with the emotional fortitude or maturity to be able to handle strong emotions that they will most certainly have about their past. It’s valuable for foster parents to tap into the memories and the accompanying strong emotions that foster children have from their lives prior to becoming a part of a foster family. By remembering your foster child’s past and allowing him or her to have strong emotions, you relieve a burden that your foster child is carrying.
Foster children are not fully developed, of course, when they come into your care. If they enter foster care when they are very young, they will see their situation as foster children through the eyes of a child. As they grow and their thinking matures, they will begin to see and think about other facets of their situation in foster care. They will have new feelings about foster care and some of them will be conflicted. Each time your foster children reach a new milestone, they will think about biological parents and the past. Though they may be happy living in your home as your foster children, they will become aware, as they mature, of how their biological parents must feel, or should feel. They may start to see themselves as a burden to you. Your foster child’s maturing brain will regularly have new questions about how foster care works and what it really means to be a foster child.
Foster children may get muddled information in school that can confuses them. They may get mixed messages from caseworkers or biological parents or other relatives. It’s important that you broach the topics that you think might be bothering your foster child. Talking about what happened in the past and giving your foster child age-appropriate information and thoughts about their current situation can be extremely helpful to them.
Try to remember being young and misunderstanding what was going on in your own life. Do you remember thinking there were monsters under your bed? Do you remember feeling like you’d committed a serious crime after wetting the bed or spilling milk? As an adult, looking back on situations that bothered you as a kid, it’s easy to see your own disillusionment about how things really were. Children are dependent on their caregivers and they attach a lot of meaning sometimes to even small events. Imagine how much meaning and emotional stress is created in children’s lives when their caregivers have abused them physically or sexually. Talking about the past unabashedly, with acceptance and a calm and open demeanor can give your child the opportunity to think logically about what happened and develop healthy opinions about it.
Death, divorce, relocation; these things all involve loss. Children in foster care are grieving because they’ve lost their parents, their homes, sometimes their siblings, pets, and many of their toys and personal items. That’s a lot of loss to experience all at once!
Grief counselors who specialize in loss recommend that you talk with people young and old if they’ve experienced loss. Don’t try to sidestep the topic. Ask the person who is grieving to tell the story of their loss. Each time a grieving child or a grieving adult gets to tell the story of how they lost something or someone that they love, it removes just a little bit of the burden from them. When I go to funerals or encounter someone who has recently experienced loss, I ask them specific questions about their experience and I let them tell me whether their comfortable talking about it. People who are grieving will often tell the story of their loss over and over again, sometimes highlighting new details in the story. This is healthy. Telling painful stories helps people release and digest the pain without bottling it up or trying to deny that the pain is there. It is rare for someone to tell me that they’re uncomfortable talking about their loss. In our culture, we try to deny loss and “talk about something else” to get people’s minds off of it. But if someone is grieving, talk is therapy. Every time your foster child has the chance to talk about their loss, it’s like you’re taking a little piece of baggage off their shoulders. You can’t take all the baggage from them all it once because children need to think about what they’ve lost and work with it themselves too. But if you regularly talk with your foster child about their past and allow them to talk about what happened to them, what they’ve lost and how they feel about it, this will help them release their burden.
Open-ended questions (questions that can’t be answered with a yes or a no) can help get your foster child talking about the past. You can use questions to show your foster child that you’re listening and thinking about her (or him). All foster children are carrying a heavy burden of loss and need you to help them manage it properly. Never take your foster child’s history for granted, thinking that you can deny what happened to them and make it all go away. Instead, find ways to talk with your foster child and share thoughts about his or her past. In this way, you can deepen your relationship with your foster child while releasing a heavy burden slowly over time.
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