How to Cope with the Ups and Downs of Being a Foster Parent by Dr. John DeGarmo
As a foster parent, you NEED to take care of yourself. You NEED to ensure that you are watching out after yourself, finding the time you need for you, and the help you need to care for not only the children in your home but for yourself and your family. If you do not, all that you do will suffer.
Remember to “Be in the Moment”
It is important to stay in the moment, so to speak, to focus on the here and now, instead of what might happen, of what could be. When we worry about what might happen in the future, we lose the chance and the opportunity to embrace and enjoy what is happening in the present time. When we allow our worries and concerns to overwhelm us about future events, we do not allow ourselves to be helpful to those around us in the present moment. As foster parents, we can’t care for, help, teach and love the children living with our family, children that need us to be with them right now, at the moment, if we are overwhelmed with things we have no control of tomorrow, next week, or next year.
Let your heartbreak
We do love them as our own, and we experience feelings of grief and loss when a child leaves our home and our family. Yet, it is healthy for us to become emotionally invested, and to become attached to the children in our home. If we do not become attached, and hold ourselves at arm’s distance, so to speak, and try to protect ourselves, we will not be able to help the ones we are trying to care for.
Patience is a Virtue
If you are struggling with maintaining your own patience, go ahead and call your own time out. Don’t be afraid or let your ego object to asking your spouse or partner to step in and take over a situation if you are becoming too frustrated, or feel you are losing control of your own emotions. Tell the child that you will talk about it at a later time, allowing both you and the child to cool off. Step outside or into another room, and give yourself time to count to ten. Any of these are positive ways to de-escalate a situation.
Don’t Take it Personally
As foster parents, we need to keep in mind that it isn’t really about us. The child has been abused, neglected, abandoned. There is a reason why the child living in your home has been placed in foster care. He is hurting. It’s not about us. It’s about the child and his pain. Even when he is yelling at you, “I hate you!” and slamming the door. His anger and emotion may be directed at you, but it’s not true about you. Instead, his anger and pain come from someplace else.
When your buttons are being pushed, it is important to remember that you are the mature one, you are the adult, you are the parental figure. Resist yelling back, don’t give in to the temptation to respond in anger, no name-calling from you. Try to not respond emotionally. Instead, focus on the child’s behavior and not his emotion. Respond to why he is feeling this way, not to the words he may be yelling at you.
Your Own Support Group
I have said it over and over again; no one truly understands a foster parent like another foster parent. That’s why it is important to surround yourself with a support group of fellow foster parents, especially when you are feeling burned out. There are a number of foster parent support groups and associations across the nation. A few of these organizations may be national ones, while many others are, comprised of foster parents, like you. Either way, you will benefit by being in a support organization, as they will provide you with not only support, but information, fellowship, and important insight that will help you be a better foster parent.
Sometimes, taking time for yourself also means saying “no” to the next phone call; the next placement. It is okay to say “No,” once in a while as a foster parent. It is okay for you to take time for yourself, your spouse, and your family. It is okay to re-charge those batteries. It’s okay to take some time off to grieve the loss of a child from foster care in your home, and in your life. It’s okay to take some personal time, each day, for meditation, prayer, or spiritual time for yourself.
Dr. John DeGarmo is an international expert in parenting and foster care and is a TEDx Talk presenter. Dr. John is the founder and director of The Foster Care Institute. He has been a foster parent for 17 years, and he and his wife have had over 60 children come through their home. He is an international consultant to schools, legal firms, and foster care agencies, as well as an empowerment and transformational speaker and trainer for schools, child welfare, businesses, and non-profit organizations. He is the author of several books, including The Foster Care Survival Guide and writes for several publications. Dr. John has appeared on CNN HLN, Good Morning, America, and NBC, FOX, CBS, and PBS stations across the nation. He and his wife have received many awards, including the Good Morning America Ultimate Hero Award. He can be contacted at drjohndegarmo@gmail, through his Facebook page, Dr. John DeGarmo, or at The Foster Care Institute.
Celia Center Blog
Why do you have two mommies and two daddies? Can I have two mommies and two daddies?
No, but you have 6 grandparents.
I have an idea. If you and daddy weren’t together, then got together with another mommy and another daddy, I could have two daddies and two mommies.
Yes, that’s true, but …
Naturally, after the above conversation, my son carefully mulled over what I had said and the implications it has on him and what that means for his family. It’s difficult to explain the complexities of having an adoptive family and a biological family to an adult, let alone to my 5-year-old. Sometimes he’ll ask if Abuelo and Grandma are my “real” parents or if Oma and Opa are my “real” parents. Using that word “real” is arduous for me. It is a word that I have flirted with my whole life, a word that asks for an answer when all I have is a weak notion of what it could possibly mean.
His confusion reminds me of my own, which I thought I had cleared up 15 years ago when I “found” my biological family. The reunion was all very enchanting, almost a fairytale: my biological parents married 2 years after I was born. I had two fully biological younger brothers. In fact, I had a whole family that I was not a part of. The irony.
Abuelo and Grandma were young and in love in 1977. But, I’m told, the relationship was a bit “rocky.” I imagine if I were that young and pregnant, I would myself be a bit “rocky” in addition to the relationship. Due to the relationship I now have with my biological parents, I know that the scenario was nuanced with shame and obligations. Because I have trekked through and tried on notions of identity and sense of belonging so thoroughly since I first reunited with my natural parents, I recognize the agony and guilt with which the decisions were made. I was born to the Cerón-Janquart family in February of 1978 and was adopted into the Rademacher family in May of that same year. My body felt the loss, but as I grew, it disappeared from my consciousness. My brain kept the secrets of lost connections and cached it. As I matured, the unfilled feelings grew with me.
Once I turned 18, I chose to do something that I had always dreamt about: finding my birth parents. Alas, when I called the organization through which I was adopted, they informed me that the law had changed. An adopted person was required to be 21 before they could access identifying information about their biological parents. Devastated, I weathered the emotional upheaval. I moved on, agonizing and struggling. Finally in January of 2004, at the urging of a friend, I contacted the adoption organization again. This time at 26, there was no obstruction. I filed the paperwork, and I waited. I imagined it would be years, as such I put it out of my mind as much as I could. But lo and behold, 2 months later, the morning before I was meant to install my thesis art exhibition, I received a call from a social worker. My world collapsed.
It was through a haze and stupor that I completed my undergraduate tenure; real, emotional life took over. I had no more notions of things I wasn’t because for the first time in my whole life, I had a piece of paper–chicken scratch from my phone conversation with the social worker–with decisive information of who exactly I was, who I am. Trembling, I would finger what I had so nervously written on an extra piece of paper from the printer. I walked outside, and paced, as one does in the movies. I walked back inside and sat at a desk in the hallway at school. I was at my student work-study job at the school computer lab. I looked out at all of my classmates desperately trying to finish a design or a paper or a video, engulfed at the end of the semester. While I, less concerned about my final exhibition, I began to undertake the sincere journey of my identity.
When my 5-year-old asks about my mommies and my daddies, I tell him with such ease who they are to me, for him to discover who they are to him. I don’t imagine that the questions around my double parents will stop until he is much older and can more fully grasp the concepts involved in an adopted person’s life and in the life of their offspring. And maybe those questions won’t ever stop, but instead, they will turn into conversations and dialogues about identity and belonging, about secrets and revealing, about truths and frailties.
Complex trauma is, well, complex and also trans-generational. I felt agony while I was pregnant with my son, simply imagining my first mother being pregnant with me, her knowing full well that she would relinquish me to another family. I cannot fathom the anguish and pain. Knowing that I too felt that burden while growing in my mother’s womb and understanding the missed attachments that I experienced over and over before I was placed…strangely it gives me peace: I have a better understanding of why I am who I am. I have come to terms with the complexities that inform my self and my identity.
Jeanette Yoffe explains foster care to adoption from the child’s point of view.
The transition from foster care to adoption can be very difficult for a child and there are many challenges to take into consideration. The challenges center around separation and loss, trust, rejection, guilt and shame, identity, intimacy, loyalty, and mastery or power and control. I will primarily be dealing with children between the ages of six and twelve and their developmental stages. Followed by ways in which parents and therapists can understand how to help a foster or adopted child cope with these psychological complexities so the transition can be smoother for all involved.
I chose this topic because I was a foster child until the age of seven and was “finally” adopted. And having lived the experience, I know how helpless a child can feel and how helpless I have felt. Separation and loss from a family are very difficult emotionally for a child especially when they have formed an attachment. The pain, loss, and memories will remain with them for the rest of their lives. Since the age of 8, I have been in psychotherapy. Therapy has allowed me to take a deeper look at my own life and share it with others. Writing also helps me come to a deeper understanding and forgiveness for all of my families. And with that deep understanding, I hope to educate others of a child’s needs in foster care and adoption so that the pain will be eased that much more for generations to come.
First, I would like to define the difference between foster care and adoption:
- Foster care provides temporary relief care for children. Children generally are placed in foster care by child welfare agencies. But, some of these children are voluntarily placed in foster care when circumstances, such as illness, death or adolescent pregnancy prevent their parents from caring for them. In cases of child abuse or neglect, social service agencies may remove children involuntarily and place them with foster parents. Most foster placements are made with the intention of reuniting the biological family at a later time although the percentages are low. Agencies also place children in foster care while searching for adoptive parents.
- Adoption is a procedure by which people legally assume the role of “parents” for a person who is not their biological child. Adopted children become full members of their adopted family and have the same status as biological children. The majority of people who adopt are married couples, of all ethnic, racial, religious backgrounds, same-sex couples, as well as single-household families.
Children in foster care are forced to deal with many emotions starting with the aftermath of abandonment. They often feel unwanted and unloved because they “psychologically feel” a physical and emotional abandonment from their birth parents. Some children have been moved from place to place so often, (statistical average is 3-4 placements) they believe it is because of something they must have done to cause this and as a result begin to internalize their pain and blame themselves causing intense shame. They suffer from separation anxiety. Separation anxiety is defined as a grief reaction to unresolved loss. (Lifton, 1994) This separation is associated with the visceral feeling of loss from the time of that first separation from the birth mother. (Lifton, 1994) It is very traumatic for the child and difficult to grieve.
Most children try to repress their feelings because they become too difficult to handle. Even the mere thought of saying “goodbye” to a friend, can be very traumatic, for fear they may never see that person again. Some children develop chronic illnesses as a result of their constant anxiety such as stomach aches, headaches, allergies, asthma chronic fatigue or stuttering as a result of separation from their mother. There is a close association between gastrointestinal functioning and emotional states. The ‘not being able to stomach” their pain is closely related to the unconscious fear of another abandonment or the deprivation of food or further nurturing. (Nancy Newton Verrier, 1993)
They can feel easily frightened and scared. They can understand cognitively the situation they are in is only temporary and that they can be moved at any time. However to psychologically survive the experience some children will develop a rich fantasy life, which allows them to escape from painful memories. This escaping is a coping mechanism that is learned early on. Children can seem like they are in a trance by their emotional detachment or passivity in normal activities. Also called dissociation. Any type of mental activity seems difficult because it involves the memory – something foster children are trying to keep at bay. (Verrier, 1993) It is common for many foster children to be diagnosed with A.D.D or A.D.H.D.
In middle childhood, children are beginning to understand the meanings and implications of events but this can be very difficult for them. They can’t fully comprehend what is happening to them, so some children choose another coping mechanism; “the fight or flight mode.” The flight mode develops a fantasy world that takes them away from their present situation to the extent of believing their biological mother will come back and rescue them. While the latter develops deep anger and will act out or fight feeling anything. Their fear is risking further rejection. They will hide their feelings and emotions in fear of getting hurt again. Some children will mask their pain and hide behind a “false self” which they subconsciously create for themselves as a coping mechanism. But by masking their pain and denying their painful feelings will only get worse and lead to depression. The immense pain can lead to anger which can become internalized and lead to suicide or self-mutilation, another way of trying to unleash their painful depression.
When a child is moved from foster care to adoption there are many things to take into consideration how a child understands this transition. The child now has a permanent place to call home. Even though it is now “official” he/she may still not believe that they will not be abandoned again. Not only has the child left his/her biological family but has now left a second family and is moving onto the third if they were not in more than one foster home before. The child now experiences another loss to suffer, loss of the foster family.
With the loss of the foster family, they are now told who the “real” Mommy and Daddy are. The feelings are bittersweet on the one hand it is all very exciting but on the other, there is a lot of unresolved loss and confusion. There is an intense love and intense sadness dynamic which occurs.
Foster children are often ashamed of their past and unsure of the present. Some children are so used to the experience they are ready at any moment to pack up and leave. I remember as a child being very neat and knowing where all of my few belongings were “just in case” I needed to leave again, I was ready.
When a child is finally adopted and no longer in foster care, there are new beginnings but much is left be said of their pasts. Most adoptive parents don’t want to relive what their child has experienced but they will ultimately have to join, understand, grieve with and help make sense of their child’s past with them. These are things that become issues for newly adoptive families.
- Birthdays are critical times. This day brings them back to their birth and their birthmother and questions about family or origin. It can bring up issues of loss or anger and empty feelings. They feel disconnected from their past. The British researcher H.J. Sants coined the term “genealogical bewilderment” in 1964 to describe this sense of disconnectedness. (Brodzinsky, Schechter, Marantz, 1992)
- There will be an ethnic and racial awareness of their new family. Do they look like them? What are our similarities? Physical characteristics help children define themselves and make connections with others. Feelings of belonging and security are nurtured by looking like the people around you and when they are absent children become confused. (Brodzinsky, Schechter, Marantz, 1992) Additional issues arise when adopted children come from a different culture than their adoptive parents. Adoptions in which the adoptive parents and their adopted child are of different races, known as transracial adoptions, pose special difficulties. When children belong to a different race than either of their parents, others in the community very quickly become aware that the children are adopted. Transracial adoptive families often face everything from innocent curiosity to outright hostility and prejudice. Many adoptive parents educate themselves about their child’s birth culture so that they can offer their child support and help build self-esteem.
- Separation anxiety can occur. For example staying over a friend’s house, going to school or to camp. Adoptees have trouble leaving home or going to college. While other teenagers are separating from their parents and turning to people outside the family circle, many adoptees fear to venture far from the only place that stands between them and the void. (Lifton, 1994)
- There may be a testing-out period. The child may try to provoke the very rejection he/she fears most. They will reject the parents before the parents can reject them. It is as if the child cannot trust that he/she will not again be abandoned. (Verrier, 1993)
On the other hand, some children will have the burning desire to excel in school, in sports, in their careers and rearing a family. They may become very successful at everything they do in order to please others and be accepted by others. One adoptee puts in clearly “… when they said, “Jump!” I asked, “How high!”
Many adoptees will say they feel as if a “part of them is missing”, they have difficulty with their identity and what they are supposed to be? They are longing to find that part of themselves that has been lost.
As an adoptee develops, he/she will struggle with feelings of duality or duplicity. In dual identity, there is a false self as an adoptee and a real self in relation to the biological family. (Brodzinsky, Schechter, Marantz, 1992) What this means is the initial self that was exposed and rejected is now hidden behind another self in order to protect the real self from being hurt again. So, it’s like they are living in two worlds.
As therapists and prospective adoptive parents, how can we help these children?
Adoptees have, by the very act of adoption, go through a lot. By the time adoptees are adults, they have survived separation from their birth parents, have acclimated to a new family, have dealt with fantasy and fears, have confronted identity issues, and have navigated relationships. The awareness of having survived such stages and transitions can give the adoptee’s strength and determination in various areas of their lives. The downside of this feeling of survival is that some adoptees find it difficult to depend on others and instead are very independent. It is important for adoptees to realize that healthy relationships involve interdependence- depending on one’s self and depending on others. (Russell, 1996)
Understand the difference between attachment and bonding, two terms often used interchangeably. It is safe to say that most adopted children form attachments to their adoptive parents. This is a kind of emotional dependence, which may seem crucial to their survival. Bonding, on the other band, may not be so easily achieved. It implies a profound connection, which is experienced at all levels of human awareness. As an infant, bonding instills a child with a sense of well-being and wholeness necessary for healthy emotional development. (Verrier, 1993) When the bond is interrupted the child does not develop a bond with the birth mother and his/her needs have not been met.
Nancy Verrier, a clinical psychologist and adoptive mother said ‘The severing of that connection between adopted child and his birthmother causes a primal or narcissistic wound, which affects the adoptee’s sense of self and manifests in a sense of loss, basic mistrust, anxiety and depression, emotional or behavioral problems, and difficulties in relationships with significant others. And that abandoned baby lives inside each and every adoptee all his or her life.”
Parents need to understand that the foster child or adopted child they are getting comes with a past, which they may never be able to fully comprehend. Parents need to try not to mold their child into their fantasy of what they want him or her to be for them. The child is who they already are especially if the child is coming to them at an older age.
In order to understand an adoptee’s past parents and therapists need to listen and be there for them because they will have a lot of pain. Difficult as it is for parents to watch their adopted children try to deal with the pain of adoption or foster related loss, they can do nothing to spare them. They can, however, help ease the process by providing a supportive, nurturing environment in which the emotional storms of grieving can be weathered. Be available and listen, help them clarify their emotions, and accept whatever” feelings they are expressing and accept them as valid. (Verrier, 1993)
The following is the Adoptee ‘s Bill of Rights written by Sherrie Eldridge, a psychologist, who was also adopted:
I have the right to feel confused.
After all, I have had two sets of parents, one of which was shrouded in secrecy.
I have the right to fear abandonment and rejection.
After all, 1 was abandoned by the one I was most intimate -with.
I have the right to acknowledge the pain.
After all, I lost my closest relative at the youngest age possible.
I have the right to grieve.
After all, everyone else in society acknowledges strong emotions.
I have a right to express my emotions.
After all, they have been shut down ever since adoption day.
By parent’s nonjudgmental responses, parents can show their children that these ups and downs are normal, real, acceptable—and temporary. (Brodzinsky, Schechter, Marantz, 1992)
Remind adoptees of their strengths, competence, and worth as people. This helps them gain some esteem over the deep sense of helplessness. Look for the opportunities and help express them. Foster and adopted children will gain a greater sense of self and pride … that which is mostly absent.
Expose adoptee’s to other adoptee’s so they can receive validation by hearing another person’s story. This will create bonding which is something that was lost for the adoptee. It will give them the freedom to be themselves with those like themselves. Learn more about the support I began in Los Angeles, The Adopt Salon.
Coming from experience, adoption is not an easy task for all involved. One adoptee put it well, “It’s like getting to the end of the book and you have two more pages left and you lose the book.” Adoption, I feel, like life is a process. It is an issue, which needs to be dealt with properly, so the experience can be beautiful for all. Each person from child to parent is ultimately giving each other what they were searching for in the first place: love and a family. It is a beautiful dichotomy that unfortunately is taken for granted every day.
Learn more about OPEN ADOPTION HERE:
Brodzinsky, David M., Schechter, Marshall and Henig Marantz, Robin. (1992).
Being Adopted-The Lifelong Search for Self. New York, NY: Doubleday.
Eldridge, Sherrie. (1999). Twenty Things Adopted Kids Wish Their Adoptive Parents Knew. New York, NY: Dell Publishing.
Lifton, Betty Jean. (1994). Journey of the Adopted Self. New York, NY: BasicBooks.
Miller, Alice. (1997). The Drama of the Gifted Child. New York, NY: BasicBooks.
Russell, Marlou. (1996). Adoption Wisdom. Santa Monica, CA: Broken Branch Productions.
Verrier, Nancy Newton. (1993). The Primal Wound. Baltimore, MD: Gateway Press
Jeanette Yoffe was interviewed for this podcast on February 16, 2018.
Podcaster Haley Radke invites Jeanette Yoffe to share what inspired her to begin a support group for adoptees. Discussion covers how to start your own group and best practices for peer-facilitated groups.
If starting or joining a support group feels too intimidating, don’t worry! Jeanette has a great idea for free support: find a listening partner.
— Haley Radke: Twitter | Instagram | Facebook
- Celia Center
- The Adoption Constellation: New Ways of Thinking About and Practicing Adoption by Michael Phillip Grand
- Using the term adoption constellation vs adoption triad
- Adopt Salon constellation groups can include: adoptees, adoptive parents, first parents, foster youth, foster alumni, foster families, social workers, spouses, siblings
- Suggested Support Group Rules:
- We support each other here, we don’t fix each other – no unsolicited advice
- Everyone gets a turn to share (5 minutes). What’s your name, what are you here for – do you have a question, do you want support for something in particular? You can share briefly about your story.
- You can ask questions if you do want advice.
- You can be here and not share: OWL (Observe, Watch and Listen)
- Keep everything confidential that is shared in the group
- We need firm and safe group rules so we don’t experience secondary trauma
- Constellation groups help us examine adoption from multiple angles; helps in growing compassion and acknowledging it is a shared experience.
- Celia Center support groups have been featured on OWN’s Television Show, “Raising Whitley” and TLC’s “Long Lost Family”
- If you can’t find a group, don’t feel comfortable going to a group, don’t want to start your own… Find a listening partner! Book a regular call that is to someone who will just listen. Listen, receive and acknowledge.
- Support groups to listen, share and support; you can also have guests come in and present, maybe for 15 minutes on different topics – mindfulness, an education piece about trauma, sharing their story… but leave space for the group to still share and discuss.
- If a group has different members of the adoption constellation present, it’s best to have a licensed therapist to facilitate. For peer-led support, just having adult adoptees (for example) is safer.
- Celia Center Arts Festival | Adopting Resilience, Fostering the Spirit of Creativity
- Celia Center Arts Festival 2016 Summary Video
- Check out adopteesconnect.com for new peer-led groups starting in the United States (started by Pamela Karanova of How Does it Feel to be Adopted)
- If you have another resource of places to find in-person adoptee support groups, please get in touch so I can list it here.
— Haley Radke: Twitter | Instagram | Facebook