If parenting is the hardest job in the world, then it definitely stands to reason that foster parenting gives new meaning to the word “hard.” There are challenges aplenty—from navigating the court system to dealing with uncooperative biological parents—but the rewards are numerous, too.
Becoming a foster parent provides a unique opportunity to affect the life of a child who needs it most and forge a new legacy, the impact of which will be felt for generations to come. Fostering is not for the faint of heart, though, so here’s how to tell if you’re ready to take the leap.
You are clear about your role and purpose for fostering.
When Esther Crawford and her husband first fostered their daughter in August 2011, they were very clear about their intentions to ultimately create a more long-term arrangement. “Some people become foster parents with the intent to simply foster, while others go in with an intent to adopt,” Crawford says. “We knew we wanted to adopt a child and chose foster care as the route.”
This long-term vision certainly gave the Crawfords a different perspective as they worked through the early challenges with their daughter Emma. “The first few months Emma had night terrors; she would wake up nearly every night crying,” explains Crawford. “It was clear that she was trying to understand what was happening, but she was having a hard time processing it at only 5 years old. We were her third home in two years, so it took a couple of years for her to fully trust that we were her ‘forever home.’”
Parents who aim to solely foster must take a different approach, however. “Less obvious is to have a mindset that you are entering into a long-standing problem and you are going to be, in a sense, a trail guide that is going to try to take this lost person from one way station on the path of life to the next way station,” says psychologist Michael Anderson, who has fostered children of his own and is the co-author of the recently released Gist: The Essence of Raising Life Ready Kids. “Sometimes the guide will stay with the person for a couple legs of the journey, but usually it is for one—for example, the child’s sophomore and junior year [of high school]. The desire is that there would be a lifetime connection, which sometimes happens, but it is more frequent that new problems, legal issues, familiarity or fatigue alter that wish.”
And according to Kasey Phillips Brown, a licensed clinical social worker, the best arrangements occur when parents are not fostering with the purpose of receiving a monthly stipend. “In my opinion, it is beneficial and decreases stress when a foster parent is able to pay for additional services, recreational activities and/or miscellaneous items that aren’t necessities without feeling that a child is causing an additional strain on them,” she says. “Also, if you have a foster parent who is only providing foster care for the money, sometimes you have a situation in which the person is not necessarily emotionally invested in the children. Therefore, it is easier for them to quickly ask for a removal of a child and just substitute them for another one.”
You are open to myriad challenges.
While case studies and experts can provide lists of likely outcomes for parents who bring foster children into their home, the reality is that no two children are alike. This makes it important to be open to dealing with a multitude of different challenges.
“By the time many foster children are 10 to 13 years old, their lives have been radically different than a normal child’s life, Anderson explains. “They likely have many deep wounds going back to when they were 2 or 3 years old, and there will probably be abuse of some type in their past, which has destroyed the foundation of security that a life is built on. Many of these kids have spent the bulk of their young lives managing their wounds by focusing on: 1) survival, 2) testing trust/distrust, 3) manipulating their surroundings and 4) being preoccupied with their own pain, needs and wants. They may be engaging and precious kids, but many have a Ph.D. in these for four areas.”
To help cope, Brown suggests that foster parents join a support group and also make full use of the social worker, therapist and other mental health professionals that may be assigned to the child. “It takes a great deal of patience to manage the needs of children who are either traumatized or have experienced serious losses,” she adds. “Foster parents who have knowledge of mental illness, trauma and who are compassionate are much needed.”
You are prepared to connect while staying emotionally detached.
This may seem like an oxymoron—the idea of connecting with children without really connecting—but it’s a necessary evil if you want to maintain order in your home and still have a meaningful impact.
“Foster kids often have some type of attachment disorder, and they will not attach to anyone who isn’t calm, stable and involved in their lives,” says Anderson. “But if you are emotionally involved, the kids are pros at manipulating your emotions and winning the battle. Foster kids are skilled at making foster parents act like they are 18 years old through all kinds of manipulations and annoying and passive-aggressive behavior. If the foster parent takes things personally, soon every day can feel like a week, and every week will feel like a month.”
So how can foster parents refrain from taking things personally? “It is a challenge,” Anderson admits. “Lies, poor hygiene, rolled eyes, broken lamps and money stolen right from the foster parent’s wallet are things you can expect. It is just the behavior of an under-developed, hurting kid doing the only things he knows to do to test his world.”
The potential drawbacks of foster parenting can certainly seem overwhelming, but now more than ever, there are countless children who need adults willing to take on the challenge.
“Good foster parents are extremely needed right now, and it can be a tremendous joy,” says Anderson. It can be a roller coaster ride, and during the sweet times these kids will fill your life with meaning and your home with laughter. They are uniquely able to force a family toward health, which holds it’s own form of joy and reward. And when a foster child smiles or succeeds, it is different than a child succeeding that has had unlimited opportunities. It is a smile and an achievement that carries the realization that without the foster family’s courage and generosity, the world would have never known that gift.”