My name is Sierra Larson, LCSW owner of Sierra Counseling Services.
I have spent years working with foster and adoptive parents (F/A) in a variety of ways. I noticed that many of these parents had similar concerns about their children and the foster care system. One thing that they all had in common was feeling like these issues only pertained to them and their children. Little did they know I have worked with dozens of F/A parents who all were struggling with the same issues. I wanted to create this post to let F/A parents know that they are not alone, to validate their experiences, and to provide help and hope to those struggling with these very common issues.
F/A parents start off with the best of intentions. We’ve all had the daydream of what it would be like to foster or adopt. Little orphan Annie gets saved from her hard-knock life and is eternally grateful to live with Daddy Warbucks. We are the Miss Honey who sees the potential in young Matilda and rescues her from her abusive and neglectful home. While for a lucky few this may have been the case, Hollywood has romanticized the experience of fostering and adopting. The truth is that being a F/A parent is emotionally taxing and a lot of hard work.
These expectations may come from mainstream media’s perception of what it is like to foster or adopt, or these expectations can come from having raised biological children. Often, we expect the children we receive to be like the children that we raised in stable, loving, supportive, homes. This is a reasonable assumption, after all, children are children. Why should the child that I receive be so different than the ones I raised especially when I am providing such a nurturing home? One word: TRAUMA.
F/A Parents Don’t Know Enough About Their Child’s Trauma
Due to HIIPA laws, a lot of information is withheld from foster and adoptive parents. Some of that information includes the child’s trauma history. When I worked with children in foster care the first thing I would get when a new client was referred was a binder as thick as a briefcase full of files pertaining to the child’s case and their trauma history. Many of these files explained in detail the abuse, neglect, and tragedies that these children have experienced. While I agree that the child and their biological parents are entitled to their privacy, social service agencies need to be more transparent when discussing possible trauma symptoms that the child may display.
Many F/A parents that I have worked with have a hard time understanding the reason behind their child’s behaviors. It is common to assume that because the child is now in a safe environment, they should not have to behave the same way they would in their previous home. While that is a perfectly valid assumption, it is not usually the case. Trauma affects the brain in lasting ways and those effects lead to lasting symptoms that need to be addressed in therapy with a licensed professional trained in trauma treatment.
Their Child’s Trauma Symptoms and Behaviors
One of the biggest struggles that I help parents overcome is navigating their child’s trauma symptoms. Trauma symptoms present differently in each child depending on the child and the trauma. Children are children and they all misbehave at times. Sometimes it is difficult to discern their trauma-related behaviors from developmentally appropriate misbehavior. For example, a child may say that they don’t want to go to school and complain about going. A traumatized child who is avoiding going to school due to trauma-related anxiety may scream and cry when it is time to go to school, they may also try to run out of the school when they are dropped off, or they could be extremely disruptive in class so that they can leave the class or go home.
Next week’s post How to Recognize Children’s Behaviors that are Caused by Previous Abuse or Trauma will go into detail about specific behaviors that are common for children who have been abused. Knowing that there is a root cause for these behaviors can provide hope to F/A parents that there is a way to reduce trauma symptoms and maladaptive behaviors.
The Foster Care System and Where to Find Resources
I am convinced that F/A parents should be handed a long list of resources that are available to them. Most F/A parents have no idea where to find services to help their children. So here is my best attempt at pointing you in the right direction. *This information is mostly for foster parents and comes from my experience working in Illinois; talk to your caseworker to confirm this information in your state.*
First, make sure that the child has a therapy(or doctor’s) appointment set up as soon as you can. Foster children’s medical expenses are usually paid for by Medicaid. Medicaid billing is extremely difficult and they aren’t the best about paying the bill. For these reasons and others, there are not very many service providers who accept Medicaid insurance. This means that those who do accept Medicaid tend to have long waitlists. For example, if you know that your child will need a physical to enroll in school in the fall, do not wait until the fall to set up an appointment. I would schedule appointments at least three months ahead of time.
When searching for a therapist, you will have better luck going to the nearest community mental health center as they usually take Medicaid. If you live in a rural area, call centers in your state and see if they offer teletherapy services. This is normally covered by insurance, it allows access to more resources, and can provide more flexibility.
Also, many local charities and grants provide donations and services to foster children.
Feelings of Helplessness, Confusion, and Guilt
I have had many coaching calls with F/A parents to process feelings of helplessness, confusion, guilt, frustration, and even hopelessness. These feelings make a lot of sense when you consider the day-to-day life of a parent whose child is exhibiting trauma-related behaviors. Every day can be a constant battle to manage these symptoms. It can be totally and completely exhausting. I highly recommend that parents see a therapist as well to process these emotions.
That being said, F/A parents are under-supported. I remember talking to one foster parent who said, “I wish there was a support group for parents of children with mental health diagnosis” another said, “I just don’t have anyone to talk to about this stuff! No one understands.” After listening to comments like these, I decided to start a support group for parents of children with mental health disorders(including F/A parents) we meet on the First Monday of the month virtually. Please Email: [email protected] to register.