Foster Parenting: Surviving the Critical Point

Daughter sulking in front of frustrated motherThe dreams we have for our families and children are full of deep expectations, some stated but many unspoken. This is true for families that have biological children and also for families who choose to foster and adopt. We want to make a difference in the world and love a child that needs us. We want to offer support, guidance, and opportunities to our children. The most frequent thing I hear from parents is, “I just want to help.” The best foster and adoptive parents know that helping a child involves more than just “wanting to”—it involves sticking in there when times get rough.

The Critical Point

In my experience, there tends to be a critical point in the journey of foster care and adoption when parents have to reconcile the difference between their initial expectations and their family’s current reality. I consider this the critical point because this is when placement disruption is likely to occur. Those of us that have experienced this firsthand understand that there is always a honeymoon period with a new placement. This time is filled with excitement and positive thoughts about the future. Though scared, the child may be on their best behavior: they are helpful with chores, follow the rules, attempt to build a relationship and may cheerfully fulfill their parent’s requests. For new parents, the placement may feel like bliss. The parents feel good about themselves and feel like they are making a difference.

Then comes the change—sometimes occurring slowly and sometimes what appears to be overnight. All of a sudden the sweet-natured child that you have grown to care about tells you that they hate you. They may leave the house unexpectedly and not tell you if they plan on returning, leaving you to worry and search through all hours of the night. They may refuse to follow the rules and start screaming hurtful remarks when you ask them to help with the dishes. They may tell you that you are an awful parent and that they want to move out. Some children may take this behavior to another level and resort to violence upon themselves or others. They may start attacking their siblings or getting aggressive with the family pets. They may make false allegations and tell their social worker that you are hurting them when you have done nothing of the sort.

At this time, it is incredibly important to make decisions about how to improve the situation and avoid a disruption in placement. Why do the children act like this? They are scared and lonely and testing whether you are going to love the “real them”—or kick them out like every other provider has in the past. Though it can be discouraging, all hope is not lost. Remember that there are peaks and valleys in behaviors and that these challenges will lessen over time given the appropriate support.

Before, during, or after this time of turmoil, it is common to have feelings of resentment toward the child you have chosen to bring into your home. You may feel exhausted and unable to manage their emotions in addition to yours. You may feel as though you are in over your head and are not skilled enough to manage what that child needs. Instead, you might feel as though this child screaming at you is not what you signed for and you worry about the impact on the rest of your family. It is also common to worry that your other children may pick up these behaviors and all of your hard work as a parent will be lost. You may realize that being a foster parent or adopting a child is not the same as what you expected it to be. You may think that you must be a glutton for punishment to do this work and you re-examine why you thought this would be a good idea. The worst part is that you are upset with yourself for thinking these things in the first place—all you wanted to do is “help,” right?

Working Through Resentment

The first step in working through the resentment is to acknowledge, truthfully, what your expectations were going into the process of becoming a foster/adoptive parent. Sit down and write out what your spoken and secret hopes and dreams were. Be honest about this because sometimes the secret and hidden expectations are the most important as they may reflect some core personal values that you hold about yourself, your family, and the world: What was the relationship you were hoping for? How did you envision the family dynamic?

Next, make a list of things that you felt blindsided by during this process: What has happened so far that you weren’t prepared for? What were you shocked by or scared of that you have seen your child do? What are your fears?

Third, you need to remind yourself why you are doing the work you do: What is your goal in becoming a therapeutic provider? How do you feel change is made?

Finally, re-examine your family goals with your revised understanding of your foster/adoptive child in mind and create steps you need to take in order to achieve your new and redefined vision of your family.

By doing these exercises you will gain insight into areas that you need help with in order to reconcile your feelings and get back on track with creating a therapeutic environment. You may identify areas or skills that could benefit from trainings, behavior coaching, support groups and/or therapy. You may also come to realize strengths in yourself that you never knew you had and may recognize your positive characteristics that led you to this challenging work in the first place. Remember that it is normal to feel resentment and that you are not alone. Most importantly, use these feelings to work toward being the therapeutic parent you are able to be.

© Copyright 2010 by Carmen Sample, LCSW, LAC, therapist in Longmont, Colorado. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • robyn

    robyn

    May 17th, 2010 at 11:08 AM

    Bringing a child into your home should not be about “helping”- it should be about you and this child have a connection and you want to bring him into your family.

  • kendra W.

    kendra W.

    May 17th, 2010 at 12:51 PM

    I have seen this in my brother’s family after they adopted a little boy…he would be so damn angry!but I just think what my brother and his wife did was tight-they understood that he is not doing it on purpose and that it had to do more due to the situations and things he has been through in his life.they loved him all the more and he reciprocated finally.

  • Elliot

    Elliot

    May 17th, 2010 at 7:46 PM

    That was a great read! Thank you Carmen for sharing your insights into what can be an extremely stressful time all round. When you have kids, one thing’s for certain. That nothing is certain. :)

  • jonny

    jonny

    May 18th, 2010 at 2:37 AM

    Having kids of your own is no cakewalk- why do people assume that if they adopt that it will be any different?

  • Yvette

    Yvette

    May 18th, 2010 at 9:50 AM

    I have a friend who is adopted and went through a “I hate you” period with her adoptive parents in her teens. She’ll admit herself that she was testing the boundaries. She’d been with a foster family before that she loved and hoped they would adopt her. They didn’t want to when she asked them if they would. So it was hard for her to believe she was lovable, having been rejected by her birth mom and in her eyes, her foster mom too. She had to keep pushing and pushing to find out if this one was going to stick.

  • Travis

    Travis

    May 18th, 2010 at 1:40 PM

    If it’s any consolation to adoptive or foster parents, birth children do the same thing. We all struggle with how best to handle it when they start acting like strangers, whether we are blood relatives or not. They are forming their own identity and figuring out who they are. It’s part and parcel of growing up and we as parents just do the best we can. Birth parents have the same doubts and fears as you do.

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