Connection and Comfort

Fostering has a way of showing you exactly how human we are. How imperfect. It humbles you.

As part of our continuing education hours for our licensing requirements I signed up for class on Emotion Coaching. After months and months of tantrums I was desperate to hear how I could coach them through their emotions. How do I help them work through the tantrums?

I will be honest and tell you now I don’t recall a whole lot from the class expect for one thing.

As I discussed different “techniques” I had tried, the instructor asked me this “What do you do when you’re overwhelmed or upset?” I thought about it for two seconds and said “Well I take a break, I go cool off or I talk it out with a close friend.” He then listed ways that he does. Or his wife. Or his children. As he listed different ways it became very clear that my way wasn’t the only way. What works for me, doesn’t work for them.

I felt so humbled as I realized how I had been trying to impose “my way” on these girls when they became overwhelmed or upset. How often had I told them that they need to take a break, to remove themselves from the situation and calm down? I felt foolish. Why did I assume it worked for me and this was a great way for everyone? It was the ultimate epiphany for me. The instructor was kind enough to list other options instead of “cool off time”. For example coloring, giving them playdough or clay, reading a book, time-in’s, exercise like jumping on a trampoline, etc.

It instantly brought to my mind one particularly tough day. This tantrum had been going on for over 30 minutes with no end in sight. Time out wasn’t working and the level of hysteria was climbing. As she screamed at me from the time out spot I wondered why she wasn’t calming down yet. She kept removing herself from the spot. To which I redirected her back. Over and over and over again. The screaming continued to increase. The tears coming faster. The fury of emotion was leaving her little face distorted. She was panting and having a hard time catching her breath. I told her with an even tone, when you calm down, the time will start and then you’ll be able to get out of the time out spot. In stuttering sobs she responded she didn’t know how to, she couldn’t calm down. Then she asked me, “can I just have a hug?” I said sure. She came into my arms and I hugged her tight as the tears continued to flow. Soaking into my shirt. She continued to sob that she just couldn’t stop crying. She wanted to calm down so the time could start but she couldn’t calm down, she didn’t know how. After a few moments of thinking I said ok let’s do this. I want you to take a big long slow breath and we are going to count to 20. After each number take a long slow breath. By the time we reached 20 her sobs had slowed to small gulps. I said now lets continue to 100 and I’ll start the timer now that your calm. I walked her back to the time out spot, still counting at a turtle speed. Then instead of retreating away, I sat maybe 5 feet away from her and continued to count. By the time we got to 100 she was calm, the tears had dried and time out was over.

Originally I had seen a child who was having a tantrum and needed me to remove her from the situation. Unconsciously I thought time out worked for me, it should for her. Unconsciously she had shown me what she really needed. Connection and comfort. She needed a hug and for me to use my calm to help her calm down.

Love is spelt T-I-M-E

Days blurred into weeks as our family adjusted to our new family dynamic. The timing of our first placement occurred one week before our school district began summer break. Our oldest spends most of the summer with us and most of the school year with her mom. So prior to the girls being placed in our home I was a stay at home mom to a almost 1 year old, 90% of the time. Our days were pretty laid back. Normal household tasks weren’t too hard to accomplish. The best part was he finally slept through the night and took scheduled naps during the day. Where I could also nap at my leisure… oh the good ole days!

Within 5 days of the placement I went from a napping mama of one to an exhausted mama of 4, 3 of which were home on summer break. All. Day. Long.

All joking aside the timing allowed me to observe and interact with the girls more than most. During a school day the average working parent maybe gets 5 hours total with their kiddos, if they are lucky. As a stay at home mom from wake until bedtime I was getting about 14 hours/7 days a week for a solid 3 months. This allowed me to dedicate far more time to activities and building a bond. As a stepmom I knew that in blending a family, shared experiences are vital.

Shared memories and experiences help build a long standing bond.

Our days were filled with going to the lake to swim, the Aquatic Park,  and visiting my family in various parts of Washington. I quickly did things like took pictures of the girls and all 4 of them together and printed them out. Replacing some of the pictures on my fridge to include them too. We did painted hand prints to put on the wall. Among many other fun adventures.

While the older 3 would swim and the baby would nap, I would sit and watch them listening to audible books and podcasts (Hold tight, I plan to share my favorites in a future blog). This became my time to rest and mentally recoup. I never realized how mentally and emotionally exhausting being a mom, stepmom and foster mom could be! Let alone one on summer break.

During one particular podcast I heard something that really resonated with me. It burned its way into my brain and found itself a long term home. I have pulled it out and thought about it many times since hearing it.

“Children spell love T-I-M-E”

These words may seem so simple and insignificant but when I first heard them it made be think of a Facebook article I had read once about a mom who sat down watching her child all day. She put away her phone and other distractions and just sat there watching. Every time her child looked up to meet her gaze she made a tally. By the end of the day she had many tallies. How many gazes do we miss by our distractions? For those of you who have read the book The Five Love Languages of Children, this reaches beyond filling a love language need of quality time. Regardless of your child’s particular love language they all crave our time. Time spent coloring, baking, playing a sport, doing an activity, watching a family movie together, going on an adventure together, you name it. When parenting children from tough places we spell love to them with our T-I-M-E. Many of these children have suffered extreme trauma and neglect. They may have been given minimal or no quality time. Leaving their security and attachment underdeveloped. If the only thing we do is ensure that they see a healthy parental interaction on a daily basis we have given them back a very important piece of the puzzle. A piece that hopefully they are able to repeat for their own children someday.

My goal that summer became T-I-M-E. Spending as much time with all of them. Doing as many fun things as we could together. Even when I was exhausted I tried to make sure that everyday I had caught several of their gazes that day and smiled back, encouraging them with my eyes that they are safe, they are loved, and they are wanted.

First Placement Excitement

Months of paperwork, training and home study appointments fuels an excitement. Anticipation builds as the days go by. Not much unlike the preparation and birth of a bio child. You wonder things like what will they be like? What will they look like? Will we be good foster parents?

After our first placement call the nervous excitement really kicked in. I wanted to know everything about these two little girls that would be coming to live with us. Their room was currently decorated and set up for our son, so I quickly began converting it into a girls room. Down came the navy blue curtains and up went the purple. As I worked I mulled over all my curiosity. All my questions. Those days leading up to their arrival I hammered out questions in texts to our case manager. Bless her heart for humoring me and answering what she could!

At night I would lay awake into the early morning hours filled with nerves. Could we do this? How were our lives about to change? What would I say first? How would I make them feel comfortable?

Finally the day arrived. I woke up early with a list of tasks to complete before they were to arrive at 4pm. My son and I went grocery shopping to stock the fridge. Who knows how chaotic the next few days would be and when I would have the chance to go again. I tried to pick items a 6 and 7 year old might like to eat. As I peered at all the choices of cereal I wondered what they might like? Should I pick the coco puffs infused with pure sugar? Or a healthier option? What preferences on fruit or veggie might they have? I went to Walmart and picked out a couple new fluffy pink towels, some girl toothbrushes, detangler, children’s shampoo for their bathroom and whatever else I could think of that they may or may not have when they would arrive. My nervousness built as the day went on.

Our case manager stopped by an hour or so before the girls were to arrive to view their room. One final once over. She offered words of encouragement. I remember asking her, how do I make them feel comfortable? She told me food was always a good ice breaker. Sounds good to me, pizza was already on the menu. Who could go wrong with pizza and children?

Finally I heard the door knock. As the dogs began to bark, my heart raced. I picked up my son, took a deep breath, put a smile on my face and opened the door. Peering up at me was one little girl. Her eyes looked me up and down. Then she asked “Is that your only baby?” I had to laugh. Had she just come from a home with lots of children? I told her yes and stepped aside. She walked right in and asked where their room was and dropped her bag in the middle of the living room. Before I even had a chance to tell her the social worker came to the door with her sister. This little girl was more shy. Hiding behind the social worker in clear apprehension and fear. The tears pooling in her eyes. I greeted her softly and showed them in. By this time the older of the two girls had walked around the living room, opening up doors, peering into rooms. Clearly scoping out her new digs. I found her in our oldest daughters room, looking out her window and fondling her figurines on the windowsill. I said this is not your room, this is J’s room. You will not be allowed in here unless she invites you in as calmly and firmly as I could. Let me show you and your sister your room. She replied “Where is she?” I responded she was at her mom’s but would be here in a couple days as I led her across the hall to the opposite door and showed them in. The social worker began bringing in their stuff. She attempted to recruit them to help but they weren’t having it and completely ignored her. The oldest bounced around the room like a ping pong ball. Opening up drawers. Looking in. As her things began to come in she would pull this or that out then leave it where ever to move on to a new object. The younger one would take peaks at me when she looked up from the floor but hung to the edges of the room barely making a peep.

Bag after bag came in. I was surprised but assumed at their 6th home in 9 months they had accumulated most of it from their previous homes. Once everything was unloaded from the van the social worker handed me a medicine bag, asked me if I had any questions. Then she was gone. Leaving me alone with them,. I got this, deep breath, food, break the ice. After placing the medicine in the locked cabinet I began making dinner. Asking the girls what some of their food preference were. The oldest began asking questions about our family, my husband, our two children, anything and everything. By the time dinner was finished both girls were talking and seeming to be slightly less frightened.

When my husband returned home from work that night he found me in the middle of their bedroom floor helping them sort and put away their clothes and toys. I found it interesting how the oldest kept suggesting that I just leave their clothes in suitcases. Did she think it was pointless to unpack? By the time this was completed it was almost bedtime. So I sent them to brush their teeth and change into pj’s.

When I tucked them into bed I said a short prayer, thanking God for them and their presence in our home. As I went to say goodnight and leave I wasn’t sure what to do. Do I hug them? Do I give them a pat? A kiss? A high five? I didn’t want to make them uncomfortable so I opted to ask. I asked the youngest first and she told me she wanted a hug, kiss and high five. So I gave her all three. Then I asked the oldest. She looked at me seeming unsure and responded a high five. So I high fived her, said good night girls and went to leave, I intended to leave the door cracked but it was clear from their immediate protests that they were terrified of their door being shut. With a final goodnight I walked away from the cracked door, down the hall and into the living room. From the couch I could hear them talking for a very long time. I am sure they were discussing their new home. The new people they would be staying with. They probably had a lot to work out. The whispers began to subside and then I heard tears. I gently opened the door and asked them if everything was OK. The youngest responded that she was scared. I thought about it for a second and said I had just the thing! I went into our oldest’s room and retrieved a light pillow that reflected stars onto the ceiling and a CD of lullabies. I plugged in their CD player that I had unpacked earlier and started the soft music. Then I set the pillow in the middle of the room. I wished them goodnight again and left. This time I didn’t hear any chatter or tears and silence soon descended on their room.

I had survived the first night!

 

Attachment

Here is a very informative video on attachment by TPRI Karyn Purvis Institute of Child Development. If you haven’t read her book The Connected Child, I highly recommend reading it. Attachment is so vital to helping build relationships with these kiddos from tough places. They need attachment so they can feel safe and secure which will ultimately lead to healing.

For more understanding of how vital attachment is, here is another clip that shows the emotional stress that occurs in a child when a parent does not respond appropriately. If this type of neglect was to occur over and over the result would be poor attachment and trauma. If you currently have a child in your care due to neglect, I challenge you to ponder how many times did that child cry out to their parent and they weren’t picked up and soothed. Were they picked up only occasionally?

A New Way of Parenting

In foster training you are given the very basic information on child development, cognitive/emotional/chronological age and how trauma can impact them. In fact just listing those was about 70% of the lesson. With the added note of as licensed foster parents you are not allowed to use corporal punishment at all. The WAC on this can be found here WAC 388-148-1615 What can you do? You can discipline.

Discipline is derived from the Latin disciplina which means “teaching, learning

Punishment means suffering, pain or loss to serve as retribution. Which is a quite different approach than teaching.

For those of you that survived childhood without a silver spoon in your mouth but rather a wooden spoon on your rear, this can seem very counter intuitive. We were spanked and we grew up to be contributing members of society. Our next thought is often these children just need a spanking and their behaviors would get better, right? I would never claim that every foster parent who was spanked as a child would feel this way but I would venture to guess that a large percentage probably support and/or utilize spanking as a form of punishment for their own children and it probably works. Just like it worked for us as children and corrected our behavior. However the law isn’t the only reason spanking should never be used with traumatized children.

In case there is any doubt, all children in foster care have suffered some degree of trauma.

Being removed from one’s family, home, schools, and everything they know to enter foster care alone is a trauma. Let alone what that child had experienced that led to the removal. Even infants who have been born addicted have suffered a trauma. Being moved from one home to another is trauma.

When trauma occurs human reaction is fight, flight or freeze. After repetitive occurrences of trauma the brain essentially rewires itself to stay in a constant state of survival. Our foster care trainer used the analogy of an old computer screen. Imagine a 100 windows open on the desktop, the computer freezes. So it starts to shut down windows. In a child’s mind what would be unnecessary windows of survival? Rules at the 9th new foster home. Remembering to put plate in the sink after dinner. Putting wrapper in the garbage. Saying please or thank you. Doing homework. This is just to name a few.

What would need to stay open for survival? Eating would be high on the list. What if that particular child was neglected, malnourished and starved? Their “behaviors” might look like food hoarding. Hiding snacks under their pillow and in drawers. Stealing food.

Repetition of trauma caused the behaviors. Repetition of safety and attachment/connective parenting is how you correct the behaviors. Let’s go back to the food hoarding. Punishment parenting would spank, lock up all the food, take all their stashes away, maybe even ground or take away a privilege. On the other side we know that disciplining is to teach. How do we teach the food hoarder that this is a safe place where we will never starve them? Where food will always be readily available? One very creative idea I heard was a jar filled with healthy snack options that they can have whenever they want. It is refilled daily. However if they eat all of the snacks in the jar in the morning it won’t be refilled until the next morning. In the beginning they may very well take every snack and eat them all. As time progresses the jar might still have some items in it by lunch time. As weeks pass it will probably even make it to dinner with some items left. The repetition will eventually rewire their brains to know that food is always available, they won’t starve today. Another idea is snack bags they get to keep in their room or their backpacks.

Like many, my husband and I both went into fostering thinking we would have to parent “a little different” than we might our own children. The reality was more shocking probably for my husband. Everything in his being was telling him he was seeing defiance, disrespect, on and on. His brain was telling him 2+2=4, spank it will get you respect and good behavior. That’s what was done to him as a child and it worked. With our oldest he didn’t even need to spank, the threat of it and she would stop the misbehavior.

On the flip side I had a slightly different perception and understanding which was later confirmed when we recieved our first placement and began to experience it first hand. Within the first couple weeks I began to notice how different parenting children from tough places verses our healthily attached bio children was. They were responding differently. The more “safe and calm” our home was the more chaotic and compabitve they would become. Their norm, was not our norm.

One day almost 5 months into our first placement we visited some friends for dinner. Prior to even leaving the house it was clear this might not be a pleasant dinner. Once their behaviors began to escalate. It finally got to a point that I said ok, let’s go! We are leaving. When I went to tell my husband I would be out in the car with her, she locked herself in the bathroom. While I picked the lock on the door she was screaming at me how she didn’t want to go, that she was scared, not to touch her. Once I got the door opened I said ok, that’s fine but let’s go. We are leaving. The tantrum continued all the way to the car. After she finally got in she continued her kicking and screaming and stating she was scared. I asked her what she was scared of? Me? She goes yes. I was surprised. Why would she be scared of me? I’ve never hurt her and never would. I asked her why. Her response shocked me. As I sat there looking at her in the rearview mirror from the front seat our eyes met and she responds “because you were mad. When people are mad they hit you”.

The gravity of that response broke my heart. When I get mad our children know I take a break. I walk away and cool off. But here is a child who had witnessed and been taught a very different thing. When people get mad, they hit you. Do you suppose spanking would be an effective parenting tool? Of course not. Even if that were an option for this child it wouldn’t work. It would be confirming everything she already believes about parental figures and what they do. They get mad and hit you. For these children we need to use other tools. To reach beyond “traditional” parenting. In this case 1+3=4 or 1+1+2=4. The end goal might be the same, but how you get there will be different.

The Journey Begins

Our journey into foster care began about 6 years into our marriage. Both of us felt God nudging us to become foster parents. When I finally got up the nerve to discuss it I was shocked to find my husband had been thinking about it for some time too. Years prior we had discussed fostering, had attended an orientation and returned home with the paperwork to fill out. At that time we were newer into our marriage, learning how to blend a family among other things and we didn’t pursue it further. But here we were years later, in a far different place in our marriage. Now with an “ours baby” who was less than a year old and feeling the call again.

So I wrote a Facebook message to a recruiter for foster parents through Fostering Washington. After some back and forth messages she called me and filled me in on all the steps. This eventually led to a rather large stack of paperwork sitting on our dining room table from the private agency we chose to get licensed through.

It was daunting. It was intrusive. It was personal. After a few weeks the stack was slowly finished. In it every personal detail of our lives, relationship, parenting style, childhood experiences and beliefs was filled in. Surprisingly they didn’t ask for our blood types or if we were organ donors. (I won’t say that too loud, it might be included in the updated versions)

Foster care core training was exciting and terrifying at the same time. Could we really do this? Were we crazy? Our trainer was amazing and very real. He didn’t sugar coat the realities of foster parenting. The Good. The Bad. And the Ugly. I walked away knowing that Reunification would always be the number 1 goal of the department and that the system is far from perfect. I put it in my mind that I wouldn’t be doing this because the system was perfect but because I wanted to be there for these kids. My husband’s desire was largely focused on adopting out of foster care. I wasn’t opposed to adoption but it wasn’t my main goal either.

Then began the home studies. The medical appointments and shots. Dog vaccines. Safety plans and evacuation plans.
Once it was all done and dropped off at our agency it felt surreal. For months we had been chipping away at the mountain of paperwork and requirements and now we were done. Now we wait. We were excited and anxious. We discussed what it would be like to get that first call. What questions to ask. Our “hard lines”. Our parameters. My husband was very firm that my bleeding heart was NOT allowed to say yes to a placement without first talking to him. Ok, got it!

Weeks passed by with no news. I started to get anxious, would we never be approved? Then came the call. As I sat on the phone with our licensor I finally heard what we had been waiting for. We were official. We were licensed foster parents in the state of Washington. Quite literally, licensed to parent.
In the next breath our licensor goes “let’s talk about possible placement.” In my head I was thinking “Whoa, really?! Already?! I’m not ready! Two seconds ago I didn’t even know if we would ever be licensed! Where is that list of questions I am supposed to ask? Just say yes, who cares, bring me all the babies in the world. I will love them ALL!” As I reigned in my thoughts I said “Ok.”

That call is nothing like you expect. Or maybe it is and I am an anomaly. It starts of with this vague description. No true details of who the child really is, a little like a medical file with all the highlights. Then you are given an opportunity to ask questions. Which may or may not be answered depending on the information available or confidentiality conflicts. I gave it my best shot with my list of questions we had discussed in training then decided on weeks prior. I honored my promise to my husband and told her I would call her back once I had a chance to talk to my husband. My anticipation was building as I waited for him to get home from work. Would he say yes? Would he say no? This placement was two children, instead of one like we had discussed. They were older than we had originally talked about. And they were girls which meant we would need to convert our sons room into a girls room.

When he got home we sat down and I shared with him that our license was finally done! AND we had our first placement call. I led into the conversation with there are two, girls, and the ages. Then asked do you even want me to continue or is it an automatic no? He told me to continue.

Two days later our first placement arrived and our journey into foster parenting began.

Just like that my heart for fostering began.