Thursday, February 21, 2008

Biological/Adopted Kids of Foster Parents

One of the realities of doing care and having biological children is that people in your life, including friends, will tend to believe that any problem your children have is related to care. Sometimes, like for me recently that is hard to shake off.

There is no doubt that fostering has an impact on children already in the home, how could it not? It isn't generally what people worry about though. Part of it is just ordinary sibling dynamics. Kids define themselves against each other. My sister joined gymnastics, so I took ballet. We both started piano and she was better than I was, so I quit. I was the "good girl" and she was one always in trouble. She was cute and I was ... awkward. And fostering kids define themselves against the fostered kids. The fostered kids get into trouble and the fostering kids know that they are not supposed to be that sort of kid.

It is really rather ironic. People tend to be afraid of doing care because they worry that their legal children will pick up bad habits, when in reality you are more likely to end up with legal children who are anxious about doing anything wrong. Fostering kids, with the exception of fostering kids who get really good at getting away with torturing fostered kids while always looking like angels to the parents, tend to be very "good."

I know from my research that it is typical for fostering children to feel pressure to be "good." They feel that they are supposed to be role models. They feel that it is just expected of them, that their parents don't have time for them to get into trouble. The younger they are the more they are likely to have the worry that they will be sent away if they are bad. That shouldn't be surprising, as nearly every fostering child under 10 who has been interviewed thinks that is why fostered children, even babies, are in care.

Older kids, the exact age depending in large part on how much the parents talk to them, come to understand that is not the case. Their belief that some children are given away by their parents because the kids are bad is slowly replaced with a world-view in which some parents have their kids taken away because those parents hit them, or left them alone, or just forgot to feed them while they where high for days.

You can't hide it from them. Even if you try to educate them about poverty, mental illness, and social injustices, even if you try to give them the most sympathetic understanding possible for why sometimes parents can't care for their kids, the fostered kids will talk. Maybe not all of them, but eventually there will be a child who tells your kid about killing and eating cats while homeless with his dad, or having his sisters hit him in the head with shovels at his step-father's direction.

It turns out that behavior problems are not major issues among fostering children, but some degree of anxiety is common. They tend to be homebodies. They have more sick days from school. They stress more about bad things that happen in the world. Of course the effects of fostereing are not all bad, in fact, the research indicates that it is mostly good. If the alternative is growing up feeling totally safe in their bubbles and believing that everyone who is poor is just lazy, I'll choose the life with a bit more anxiety.

It is at heart a choice that every parent has to make. When do you let them watch the news? When do you tell them about war? How much do you protect them from ugliness in the world, and how do you make them feel safe while being sympathetic at the same time? The people at the homeless shelter are not bad. They are just like us, but don't worry dear, it won't happen to you.

You just can't have it both ways. You can't raise children who understand what happens in the world and don't experience some anxiety about it. This is, by the way, that some of you with pre-school children find social workers don't want to license you or if you are licensed don't want to place children. All of us, as foster parents, started out naive. We started out only thinking about bringing a traumatized child into our homes and helping that child to heal. We did not realize that we would be introducing our un-traumatized children to all that trauma.

So I know all this. I know it better than my friends do. It is why I have not hesitated to get my children counselors as soon as I suspected that they might need someone outside the family to talk to.

I also know that there are amazing benefits of doing care. I have no doubt at all that Carl, David and Evan have enriched Andrew and Brian's lives. I know that Brian loves all of his brothers. I know that Andrew is committed to social justice, has sympathy for people in crisis, in ways most young people do not.

You know, I started this post to talk about Brian.

Brian has anxiety attacks. Brian is a fostering child. He has been a fostering child since he was six.* Brian has anxiety attacks, although his worst anxiety symptoms have not occured when there are other kids in the house. In fact, anything that could be called an anxiety attack has occured between placements. Prior to Evan moving out Brian had stomach aches and too many absences from school, but nothing worse. In fact, he did not have anything like an anxiety attack until after we started giving him ADD meds. (None of them helped him, all of them increased his anxiety. He doesn't take them anymore.)

The issues started when he was in third grade, after Carl had lived with us for a while. They seemed very much school-related. He had a bad teacher. Actually the poor kid had a series of not-great teachers. Even the ones who were probably good teachers for other kids were remarkably poor at dealing with ADD. If I could do go back in time and do anything differently, it would have been to move him to his father's elementary school where Roland could have hand-picked his teachers and easily communicated with them daily about what work Brian was getting done, and not getting done. I wouldn't change anything about doing care.

Oh, so what does all this mean? It means that I cannot pretend that doing care is part of the equation, but that I really don't believe that it is the cause of the problem or even the major contributor or trigger. Doing care has been part of making him who he is. He has a genetic pre-disposition to depression and anxiety, and some unfortunate educational experiences. In the long run, all I can do to help him is to be understanding while not "feeding" the problem. What I did yesterday is I think what is best for him. I spoke to him sympathetically, told him that I knew that what he was experiencing was tough, and all there was to do was to ride it out. The administration at the charter school responded perfectly. They too did not make him feel that he was acting out for attention. They did not roll their eyes and tell him to stop clenching his throat. They put him in a quiet room and gave him some drawing materials. After an hour they sent him back to class. He needs to get back into counseling (we've been working on that) to develop more skills, but I know this is the sort of thing that ultimately he has to "make better." I can't fix it.

And so if I am right and care is part of the equation, but not a major part, what does that mean for doing care? I want to say that it means very little. Of course we need to be careful about who we bring into the home, but I don't think it will make much of a difference. I think that doing care is probably part of Brian's anxiety, but I don't really think that Carl, David and Evan themselves are responsible for it.

And what does that mean for the future? Well, Brian still wants to go to the big high school, and we are nervous about it. Of course I also recognize it as a reason to get me out of car pool, but I am trying to keep that out of the decision (which is easy when he seems to be leaning towards the big high school. Then I get to pretend that I am a perfect super mom who would happily make any sacrifices for her kid, it is just that he doesn't want me to.) Anyway, part of me thinks that it would be smart not to take any new kids until after he is settled next year. That way we can get him settled and if he does have problems with the new school at least we would know it was the school.

Which brings me to what I was planning on writing about and will have to wait for the next post...


*Brian turned six while we were taking classes to become foster parents. He was five when we decided to do it, and six once Carl moved in.


  1. When we were taking Fresh Air Fund kids people thought that they would rob us blind. Nice.

    My kids were much worse when I had the girls. I think. It's really hard to tell, but I do remember thinking that if I had to report my own children's behavior it would seem much worse. I have really good kids, but my girls were REALLY good as far as most foster kids go.

  2. My own kids were 5, 8 & 11 when we started fostering, and now are all over 21. I can only see the good it did them. I am quite sure that fostering (and we only ever had quite young children) made them more responsible, more empathic, more tolerant of others...the second has even chosen to be a foster care worker herself. Now my adopted children have become fostering kids too, and I am just as happy with their response to opening our home to kids needing a family.

  3. Anonymous11:38 PM

    Why on earth would any parent sacrifice their own child's wellbeing to take care of other people's kids?

    Your job is to take care of your own first, that is your responsibility when you bring a child into this world.

    If people want to spend their lives saving other peoples kids, they should not do so to the detriment of innocent children, they should be responsible and get sterilised.

    Sacrifice yourself, not your children.

    But since you have brought these kids into this world, the least you can do is stop damaging their environment. It is not normal for a young child to have mental health issues.

  4. Well, Anonymous,

    It just isn't that simple.

    This post is definitely about my Brian's struggles with anxiety. It was written at a point when I was deep in angst about what to do next. Right now he is doing exceptionally well.

    There are benefits and disadvantages for kids whose families do care.

    If I had to do it over again I would definitely educate them more and better. There are some things that I would have done differently. When I think though of not having brought these four boys they consider brothers into their lives, well, that I would not change. Their lives are richer for them. Their environment has been improved more than it has been helped.

  5. Hi there, I think this post is very well written!! I am a 22 year old that was the only child my single mother had when I was 5 years old. When I was 6 my mom decided to start fostering and when I was 7 I got my first "new sister". We've had over 200 children since then. Having the foster children definitely shaped my character and still continues to.

    I'm so glad you wrote this! It's strange how similar Brian and I sound! I've never really put two and two together and connected my anxiety and add etc with having foster kids but it absolutely make sense to me. I've also always felt the need to be a role model for the kids ( younger and older) since I can remember. I know I had a much different childhood than my friends, and the older I get the more I realize just how "different" my family dynamic is. In fact, just a few days ago a guy I recently started dating made mention of how odd my family life is when I wad rambling on about a "friend of mine that used to be my sister before she got adopted". I know that's not "normal" but it's MY normal and its all I know. Sometimes I forget that some things I say sound really weird and that it's a little much for new people to try and understand right off. But like you mention, even with all the oddities and anxiety and sometimes heartbreak, when a baby brother leaves our home... The benefits way outweigh the bad. Growing up I had a TON of responsibility. Not normal chores like sweeping and dishes but helping my single mom with my siblings. Picking my brothers up from school, doing my homework at the hospital while I stayed there with my sick baby foster brother and mom stayed home with the other 5 kids, things like that... But I was happy to do it. Not many high school kids get to REALLY feel like they've made a difference. And I truly felt that way. My experiences have made me more compassionate, accepting, tolerant and humble. I've definitely got a hero comex and want to help EVERYONE, when I can't, I'm saddened. And I love that about myself.

    Obviously this isn't the lifestyle for everyone, there are selfish people who advise Gainst it... Probably to make themselves feel better about seeing a problem and doing nothing to help. But it worked for our family. And it made me a life view that few people get to experience. Don't listen to the naive bystanders and remember that you, and your Brian are making a huge impact on his brothers lives. I'm curious to know how Brian is doing now and if you know of any support groups for bio kids with foster siblings? I was asked to start one here in the Tulsa area but don't know of any already established elsewhere.

    Thanks again for sharing.

  6. And holy cow I just realized how many typos are in there... That's what I get for typing a novel of a comment on a phone. :) sorry about that


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