Sunday, April 26, 2009

Foster Parenting Milestones

In foster care training they sometimes teach us about the stages we can expect kids to go through when they move into homes. There is that stretch mis-identified as "the honeymoon." Then there is a difficult period that comes after. Whatever. They teach it to us, we learn it, and our experience is something like it.

They don't tend to talk our our milestones. As I read the blogs of foster parents in different places it occurs to me that though our journeys take different paths, we mostly seem to hit some of the same points. I think they tend to go something like this:

1. Pre-placement: "I know it will be hard but we are ready."
During this stage we are often frustrated at people who don't know a thing about foster care telling us that we are naive, that we have no idea what we are getting ourselves into. Right, like they do? We've been reading and thinking about this very carefully for quite a while. We've read the blogs, the books, gone to the training. We know it is going to be hard. We even know that we probably can't imagine exactly how hard it is going to be, but we are ready to get to work. We will face the challenges as they come.

2. The honeymoon: "They are such wonderful kids"
I don't think that kids honeymoon, but we do. We go through a stretch where we fall in love with them. We know at least part of their stories and we have deep sympathy for them. Of course we know that it is going to get more difficult later, everyone has warned us, but we are feeling a real attachment to these kids and we are sure we can weather the storms.

3. Reality bites: "I knew it was going to be hard but I didn't imagine it would be like this."
I think we don't realize how hard it is going to be because we only imagine the kids' behaviors. We tend to leave out two things: 1. how we really will feel when those behaviors are directed at us; and 2. how truly exhausted we were going to be.

We knew that kids sometimes say hateful things to the adults who try to help them. We even understood why. We probably judged other foster parents for responding in insensitive ways. Okay, so he threw his food at you and said he hates you, but he is four and traumatized.

Then it happens to us and it hurts. Having someone look you in the face and tell you that they hate you and hope you die, hurts. Imagine if your spouse/partner said that to you, if you mother said it, if your best friend said it. Imagine the feelings you have then. You are going to have those feelings. The kid spits at you, and inside some angry voice says, "you little b*stard," muscles in your arm tighten as though to slap. Another voice reminds you that you knew this was going to happen, and you take a deep breath. Hopefully you respond more or less like you planned, but that one encounter sucked more of your emotional strength than you expected.

And then it happens again. And again. And again.

4. Hoping for improvement: "it isn't always bad."
Interspersed with the bad moments are good moments, times when you see improvement, feel attachment growing. Times when you feel good about it all.

5. The crash: "I don't know if I can do this."
At some it gets so much worse than you ever imagined. Some of us see it in ourselves. We got so tired, so emotionally wore out that we did something we never imagine we could do. We found ourselves yelling back, "Yeah? Well I hate your guts too." We hid in the bathroom and cried. Some of us see it in the kids. Their behavior just isn't getting better. We are not sure we can live like this. We imagine quitting. We need to talk about it but our friends who haven't done this are unhelpful. They say things like, "You knew it was going to be hard" or "What did you think it was going to be like?" Some of them helpfully suggest that you just quit.

A good social worker or experienced foster parent will tell you it's time for respite. Yeah, you were never going to take respite. You know that kids need to feel secure and you weren't going to dump them on someone else so you could go run off and play, but you had no idea you were going to feel this bad, this exhausted, this homicidal or suicidal. Hopefully you are able to get a break and take it in such a way that the kid doesn't feel rejected.

6. Moving forward or changing paths
Once you have survived your own crash, you need to make a decision. Do you have the resources, which includes support from people outside your family, to do this? Can you keep going but not with this kid? It is possible that the system threw you the most difficult kid just because no one else would take him/her. As heartbreaking as it is to be the next person who fails this kid, sometimes that is the path we have to take.

Sometimes though we realize that we can do this. We take a deep breath and plunge back in. It is hard, so much harder than we imagined, but we can do it.

The cycle continues of course. There are good days and bad days, good months and bad months. The kids have their ups and downs and so do we. Sometimes our bad days come on their good days. Sometimes not.

7. It gets easier: "Heh! I'm doing okay!"
Someday something happens. You find feces smeared on the wall behind the sofa and you realize that you are just sighing. A teenager starts to call you names and the only voice in your head is saying, "wow, how do they find the energy to keep that up?" Maybe it happens when you listen to another parent complain about their bad day and you realize that their bad day would be a walk in the park for you. A child throws a tantrum, calls you a filthy name and your response isn't feeling hurt. You feel sympathy. You see pain.

Of course, your experience may vary.

And it will. Even when you get to the point that you are finding it easier to react the way you should, even after you have learned to pace yourself and take care of yourself, you and the kids will still have bad days and good days, good months and bad months. You will have found though that there are some things you thought would be easy that turned out to be challenges, and things that you thought were going to be hard that weren't so hard.

And then you just might get to hear yourself say, "It was so much harder than I ever imagined, but I'm glad I did it."


  1. Wow. Amazing post. We are definitely between stages 2 and 3 right now. Thank you for your always insightful insights. :)

  2. Thanks for your post. It's nice to see it all laid out like that and is a good reminder for me to look at how to support the families I work with.

  3. I am currently going back and forth between 3 and 4 with placement # 6 also known as The New Girl.

    With placement #5 also known as BabyBoy I think the milestones don't apply. He was only supposed to be here overnight, a couple of days at most, but now we are adopting him so it's different than out & out fostering. He feels like ours, having him from 2 days old and all.

    Great post!

  4. I found your blog quite by accident while perusing Twitter today. I appreciate the transparency and honesty in your writing. Thank you.

    I shepherd a new site called - a support community for foster and adoptive parents. I've linked to your site at

  5. Wow...this is one of my favorites entries yet...this is our second time aroud...and even after having done this before (experience and knowing what to expect) and getting a placement of relatively "safe" kids it's still very hard and if it weren't for the support of my family and friends and the fact that I know where to go to get help (or when to yell for it) I think I would have quit already because it's so different yet so alike and so incredilby hard.

    It's gotten to that I will only take comments/advice (I may give people my listening face but inside I'm thinking "you have no idea")from either those who have done it or are involved in some way because most are clueless...wish I could hand your post out!LOL

  6. Love this post. Thank you for sharing. It's good to know we're not alone.

  7. Spot on post with this list! This should be printed out and given to all potential foster parents.

  8. You forgot stage 8: I quit! (and I'm glad I did)

  9. wow, you hit the nail on the head. I just completed phase 5 and am wading through the mud of phase 6...Lord have mercy.

  10. Step 5 is laughable. There IS NO respite. And yes, everyone says "you asked for this" so apparently we have no right to feel frustrated or to complain even though biological parents who "asked for it" can. And since I can get no relief and DHS never bothers to answer the phone, I gave my 2 weeks notice.


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