Encouraging Foster/Adoptive Families

presented by cj:

There is a very lonely side to be being a foster/adoptive parent. You see the smiling faces, the sweet pictures, the gratefulness, the surface level. But you don’t see the emotional tension and turmoil we sometimes live in every day, after the placement or adoption is all said and done.  Parenting is hard in general, but when you add in trauma that changes brain chemistry, attachment, abuse, neglect, mental illness, medical needs, and it is downright overwhelming at times. It is very different from raising a biological child. It is full of questions, chasing whys, digging deep, and beautifully exhausting. We have heard from so many that they “want to adopt one day”, but did you know you can be serving and learning now? I think when people think of supporting foster/adoptive parents, they think physically (meals, money, house cleaning), and while that is absolutely needed and good, there is a beautiful way you can serve and support us emotionally.

In this journey we’ve been walking for 2 years, I have actually gotten some of the best support from friends and family who have never fostered, adopted, or even worked with kids from hard places. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve most definitely had my fair share of tears because of damaging words or actions, but dear friends, I want to encourage you in the best ways to encourage foster/adoptive parents emotionally.  For by doing so, you actually help serve the fatherless. I think many times people are so afraid they are going to say or do something wrong or think we just want to hang out with other adoptive parents who get it, they shrink back in this area. I want to challenge you to press in, especially if you do want to be a foster/adoptive parent one day. You get to learn from us, walk with us, serve us, and we are abundantly blessed by that, and in turn we hope it blesses your family one day. We’ve said this before and we will keep saying it: you don’t have to adopt to love and serve the fatherless, but you do have to do something. We all play a role, you just need to prayerfully consider what that is. So if you are at a loss of what that looks like or want to do a better job at it, from an adoptive mom, this is, in a nutshell, is what we need from you for emotional support.

Listen: This one may sound easy, but I mean truly listen and that may mean sometimes just sitting there because we just need to be heard. One of the big things that comes with being a foster/adoptive parent is educating and advocating. We are constantly fighting to get what our children need well after they come home whether we are wading through paperwork, calling countless doctors and therapists or navigating bureaucratic red tape to make sure our kids get what they need. Educating others is something I always loved doing before, but then when I became an adoptive parent, it also became utterly exhausting at times. It is something I was actually a little bitter about for the first few months we brought our son home, because I was tired. I was having to educate others every time I stepped out in public with my son – friends, neighbors, strangers at CostCo. And we are constantly educating others that these children, both our children and the ones who still need families, need to be seen, heard, and loved. When we are trying to tell you about the struggles we are enduring at home or the hurtful things that are being said or the frustrations we are experiencing with getting services our family needs, we too just need to be and feel heard the same way any parent needs to feel supported after a hard day. I cannot tell you the gift that it is each week that I get to slip away for a couple of hours and get to be heard over coffee with a dear friend (who is not an adoptive mom by the way).  That time of her just listening to me ramble and get things off my chest are life-giving. So, take them out for coffee, a hot meal, a glass of wine, or just go do something fun. You don’t know how much that will mean.

Understand that you will not understand, and that’s ok: When you are listening, we need you to understand that truly, unless you have worked with these kids or walked down this road as a foster/adoptive parent, you will not fully understand. And acknowledging that is good. It actually encourages us. I know this will sound weird, but one of the most discouraging things for foster/adoptive parents to hear from friends is when – with good intentions – you say that you “get it” because your “child does the same thing.” Imagine you were living with a chronic illness and a friend says they “get it” because they had a really bad headache the other day. While the intentions are good, it’s just not the same. Likewise, when one of our kids acts out in a certain way that may seem like typical kid behavior on the surface, we know the story underneath the behavior, and it is far from typical. 1) It is coming from a place of trauma, meaning we have to handle it with great sensitivity and compassion. This makes our parenting look very different – and frankly, pretty weird – to others. 2) It is with much greater severity. So, the “tantrum” that you hear your adoptive mom friend talking about that she is enduring is not her toddler acting like a spoiled brat just trying to push limits, it is a meltdown that is triggered by fear of needs not being met. It is a meltdown triggered by sensory processing disorder in an environment she can’t always control. It is a meltdown that lasts 45 minutes because when she said “no” to a breakfast bar because dinner will be served soon, it triggered a primal survival instinct from a time in their lives where food was not consistently given, and they know what hunger feels like. Foster/adoptive parents are always asking themselves this question: “Is this typical age/developmental behavior, or is this from trauma?” All that to say, one of the most encouraging things you can do is just say “I don’t understand what you’re going through, but how can I pray for you and your family? Is there a way I can take a load off for you this week, maybe bring you some freezer meals or get your other kiddos out of the house?” Or simply, and my personal favorite, “What do you need right now?” and I might respond with wine and chocolate on my front porch, or all the coffee.

Understand that you aren’t getting the full story: In light of all that was just mentioned, our job is to have grace for you not understanding it all because we know that you aren’t getting the full story.  You don’t need to know the details, you just need to know the struggle. This is part of what makes this journey such a lonely road, because we sometimes withhold certain information from you, or even our own families, on purpose. Sometimes it is for legal reasons and the safety of the child that is in our care, but mostly, as is our case, we see ourselves as the stewards of our son’s story. It is his. He needs to be the first to hear it, know it, process it, and if he chooses to share it, that is his decision, because it is his story to share. And as foster/adoptive parents, we’ll never truly know the full story of our kids either, to be honest. In our case, we are blessed to have more information than most international adoptive families, however there is still so much we will never know. Even though I chose this road willingly, I still have to grieve that loss of history, the lost time, those gaps I will never know and never got to share or experience with my son. I can’t tell you how many times I wondered, “Is he crying? Is he hurt? Is he scared? Is he hungry?” while i was half a world away. So know that when we are trying to share, many times we are withholding information from you because we don’t have it, or we have to for the protection of our kids, so it will be difficult for you to fully understand us. We know that many times the questions that you ask you are trying to understand where this is coming from and want/need more information, but we just can’t give all of that to you.

Give grace and compassion to our kids: One of the most encouraging things I have ever heard from a friend (who is not an adoptive mom) after I apologized for the umpteenth time for my child’s aggressive behavior caused by anxiety, she said “You never have to apologize for your child.” Can I tell you what an incredible sigh of relief that was? Like, I wanted to cry and give her a hug right then, because it showed me all 3 things I already mentioned: she listened to me, and she understood that she doesn’t fully understand because she didn’t have the full story. This may seem simple, because certainly all kids need grace and compassion, but I can tell you from experience that as an adoptive mom, I am always on alert when in public because I can’t always explain why my child is doing certain things. So when you are with a foster/adoptive family and their child is pushing your child, it may be out of excitement or anxiety, or they may mean to give someone a friendly pat but it comes out as a hard slap because sensory issues make it difficult for them to understand proper pressure/force. I have left play dates in tears because I knew we wouldn’t be invited back. I have left places after comments and judging stares to call my sister or friend in tears asking, “Am I just a bad mom?” So, when you are patient and gracious with our children’s issues, when you love our kids no matter what and continue to ask us to hang out, when you accept them no matter where they are on their journey, you are quite honestly being the love of Christ to our whole family – and by doing so you actually become part of the process of their healing. Thankfully, Christ didn’t wait for us to get our act together, but “while we were yet sinners [He] died for us.” You are loving in a similar way when you give our kids grace, and allow your kids to see it and be a part of it, even when it’s hard and you may want to shield them. You are teaching them to love like Christ loves.

Serve the fatherless yourselves: I will tell you right now, no matter how hard things get, nothing brings us more joy than seeing friends and family serve the fatherless in countless ways. Nothing brings us more joy than getting those phone calls, texts, or Facebook messages from friends old and new asking if we can have dinner because they want to talk about adoption, or even connecting us with friends of theirs that we don’t even know because they have questions. But all of that and more is coming in part 2.

I hope this encourages you that our relationships with you non-foster/adoptive parents, are good and important, and you play a role in our lives more than you think you do. I hope I’ve given you at least a small picture of what you can do to love on us well, especially when you aren’t sure how. So, go hug a foster/adoptive parent today, and just let them know you see them. Drop off a large coffee on their porch because you know they haven’t slept in a week (or year). Write them a hand-written note telling them what they do well and how you have learned from them. Invite them over to play even though the last time was a disaster. Respect their decisions as parents even though they are different from yours and you don’t understand how in the world their weird parenting can possibly work. Pray for them, oh pray for them. Listen with no agenda. All of these things will mean more to them than you will ever know.

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