Today, we wrap up our three-part series of advice to our younger selves with lessons from the foster and kinship care community. Not surprisingly, most of the voices in this conversation are those of foster or kinship parents: our online community serves primarily adults who are parenting or wish to parent soon. Many of the foster and kinship parents have moved into the adoption space as well. We appreciate their experiences in the foster space that help layer in the counsel that adoptive parents need to successfully parent this generation of adopted children.

If you missed the first two installments of our series, you can find them here and here.

Educate Yourself

The central recurring theme in these foster/kinship folks’ advice for their younger selves was to dig in and do some learning. Many of the lessons that they wish they knew before welcoming foster or kinship kids into their homes revolved around trauma:

“Read what you can and take classes on parenting children from trauma. Even the most well-adjusted foster kid has some trauma. Trauma impacts how a child makes decisions, how the child reacts to stimuli, how the child eats, sleeps, makes friends, and bonds.

One dad wisely cautioned against the complacency that can come with feeling prepared in advance by the trauma training agencies require for foster licensing.

“Read everything you can about trauma-informed parenting because it is important, but reading about it and having a child who has experienced trauma actually in your home are two different things and you will never feel 100% prepared.”

Our kids who have lived through abuse, neglect, and loss will indeed respond differently to their trauma, even if common generalities exist. His advice is a great reminder to approach each child as a unique human with individual needs. We can then focus on the child in front of us, working to understand him and crafting plans to reach him with our love and nurture.

Foster/Kinship Care is Complicated

The Emotions are Complex.

This quote from one foster parent in our community says it all, doesn’t it?

“This (experience) will be a rollercoaster ride, and you will feel more love than you thought possible, but also more frustration and heartbreak than you thought possible.”

The tightrope of love and heartbreak is the dilemma we hear most about in the foster care community. Most foster and kinship parents will tell you they are not heroes, and we don’t want to argue with them. However, they are uniquely willing to jump on that rollercoaster and pursue the hearts of hurting kids, even if it means facing loss and grief, sometimes over and over again.

Birth Families are Complex.

It is no surprise that the other complication that many foster and kinship parents grapple with is their kids’ birth parents. The goal of foster care is reunification until it isn’t. This requires that foster parents work to support the child in their care AND the birth parents to whom the child will return. That can feel very complicated, as many foster parents in our community frequently express their loyalty more naturally bends toward the kids. After all, the kids came into care for a reason, right?

Practical supports for Partnering with Birth Parents in Foster Care.

However, whether reunification happens or not, those birth parents are still part of the child’s life before he came to you. The foster parents we talked to had strong words for their pre-foster selves on how to be open-minded and open-hearted about their kids’ families:

“…your feelings towards your (foster child’s) parents will be complicated. They are not going to be these evil people that you can write off. They are often going to be people who are repeating cycles that they grew up with, and they can only do better if they know better. Often there is going to be self-medicating for other unresolved issues. Your (foster child’s parents are going to be normal people that you will feel a lot of compassion towards if you allow yourself to.”

“Not all first families are evil. Yes, there is a reason the kids are placed in foster care, but oftentimes the families are not offered adequate support to remain intact. Allow yourself to love, have empathy for, and cheer the successes of the families.”

The complications get a little more layered in kinship families, especially when a grandparent raises a grandchild. But the advice is worthy. If you are a kinship caregiver with complex emotions and tangled relationships with your kinship child’s parent, consider seeking professional help to partner with the child’s parents for success.

The Foster System is Complicated.

We often hear from foster families that the most challenging part of what they do involves the system itself. We get it – the foster care system in the US is full of flaws, and all-too-often the kids get the short end of the deal. The foster and kinship parents had a little bit of advice to offer their younger selves about the foster system as well:

“There are going to be a great deal of things that happen that are outside of your control, so you are going to need to find a way to manage your anxiety… around this so it doesn’t swallow you up.”

The paperwork, the phone calls, the emails – all on what feels like an endless loop – can make you feel like you are chasing your tail. And sometimes, the information in the files isn’t even accurate or it’s outdated. Those are frustrations for which these foster parents wish their younger selves had been prepared. Because, as we well know, even when you are ready, you are never going to be able to anticipate everything!

Let’s Get Practical

Finally, the foster and kinship parents offered some practical advice to their younger selves:

“Get some sleep because (you) don’t know when you will be sleeping reasonable hours again.

And this gem about not taking things personally,

“It’s okay if you don’t get a lot of placement calls. That just means that either there’s low need or needs don’t align with your approval.”

Self-Care is as Practical as it Gets!

The only bit of advice we will add for the pre-foster and kinship folks is to take good care of yourself – whether you have a current placement or not. You need to be as healthy as you can be in mind, body, and spirit to meet the needs of the children whom you will welcome to your home in the future. So yes, sleep when you can. But find what brings you joy and refresh yourself with those things, too!

Great Advice from a Great Community

We’d like to offer a special thanks to the many contributors to this series. Being part of this community that is committed to learning together and sharing the journey has helped so many parents – this author included! – to listen, grow, and be stretched for the sake of our kids.

This series was partly inspired by a podcast with a panel of birth moms. You can listen by clicking on the highlighted link for their thoughts and experiences with adoption and adoptive families in their own words.

Image Credits: Igor Spasic; Hobbies on a Budget (cropped); Ron Bixby; Jazz Guy