A foster mom of 127 kids shares what she learned in her 27 years of fostering. She says that every child deserves an irrational advocate and every foster parent practices radical hospitality.
Irene Clements and her husband fostered 127 children over 27 years and adopted four children. Talk about radical hospitality! Irene is now the Executive Director of the National Foster Parent Association, a wonderful organization to which every foster parent should belong. We are also blessed to have her serve on the Board of Creating a Family.
In honor of National Foster Care Month, we asked Irene to share what she has learned over her 27 years as a foster mom and her many years working with other foster families. We are pleased to share her wisdom with you.
How many times has someone said to you, “Don’t sweat the small stuff?” Well, I am here to say it is very important to sweat the small stuff when you are a foster, kinship, or adoptive parent. With kids in foster care or kids adopted from foster care, the small stuff can grow into some huge stuff. I truly believe that by paying attention to the small stuff, my husband and I were able to avoid bigger problems and maintain children in our family where others may have failed.
In today’s world of foster care, we talk the most about treating each child’s trauma- and that is indeed important. It is also essential to pay close attention to issues involving brain development and attachment. All three are important, as is the small stuff.
What is the “Small Stuff” when Fostering?
What do I mean by “small stuff?” In my family, that meant paying attention to “clues” that could help us identify when certain behaviors might occur so we could better try to understand their origins and then react more appropriately to the child’s actions.
We once had a little boy named “Will” who smeared feces everywhere he could, with each bowel movement – which he could control the timing of with precision! Suffice it to say he was a challenge and the other children in our family were totally grossed out by his behavior. Thank heavens, Will re-unified with a grandmother after only three months in our family, and we all sighed a big sigh of relief when he was no longer in our family. But, we missed him, too. He was an awesome child who had a history of sexual abuse. In response, he smeared his poop as an attempt to repulse his abuser – all-in-all a pretty smart move for a 5-year-old.
The “small stuff” I watched for with Will were clues to when he felt so threatened that he thought he needed to poop on himself and then share that poop with others. Was it males of a certain age? Was it males with specific hair color, etc.? Was it when he was feeling stressed, and that was his only way to relieve his stress? Was it related to females, too, whom he felt might not keep him safe? It took a while of careful watchfulness, but we learned that he was indeed afraid of any male over ten years old that had dark brown or black hair. We also learned that pooping was his stress reliever for other stressors as well.
Our work with him helped us to curb some of his pooping episodes while he was with us. It also helped his grandmother since we could arm her with this information and give her some ideas of what to look for and how to protect him.
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The hardest thing is not to take the child’s behaviors or words personally. As adults, we know the children in our care are hurt and want others to hurt with them. We do not help them when we show them that their behaviors or comments have hurt us personally. Instead, we need to acknowledge they were harmed in the past and that we want to help them not hurt anymore.
Maintaining a Sense of Humor as a Foster Parent
Occasionally surprising a foster child by reacting contrary to his expectations, usually with a refined and honed sense of humor, is often a successful foster parenting trick.
Consider the situation of a child who threw a temper tantrum in the grocery store that wouldn’t stop. My response was to throw one, too – in the middle of the grocery store! My actions stopped the child in his tracks. Yes, I felt silly, and a bit embarrassed, but the tantrum was over – a good thing for everyone including the bystanders witnessing it. I actually got a few thumbs up signals!
Or, consider this typical scenario when a child called me a Mother F—–. Instead of getting mad, I said something like, “Gosh, I never tried that. Can you tell me how you do that?” Nothing is more humorous (or satisfying) for a foster parent than a speechless adolescent or teen.
As a foster family, we used humor, perhaps dark humor, to help us cope with Will, the foster child who smeared his feces as a coping mechanism. One of our older children said he had never seen anyone who “pooped at will” like Will did because most people couldn’t just decide to poop and then do it.
After that, any time we got a call about considering a new child to join our family through foster care, the kids always reminded me to ask if this new child “pooped at will” because they didn’t want another child with Will’s particular coping mechanism to be in our family. It was my job to ask the caseworker the question and then let the kids know this particular child did not “poop at will.” Some may call this gross humor, but to a foster family, it was one way to cope with the stressors brought into the family with each new child who joined our family over the 27 years we fostered.
Each foster parent must search his or her arsenal of tricks to determine which ones work best with each child and then use them liberally. Of course, you might want to let the children ‘s caseworkers and therapists know some of these things and why you do them. It helps your caseworker get a feel for your family and gives them context when the foster child tells them what you do – like my temper tantrum in the grocery store. They won’t think you have lost your mind or that you are making fun of the child in any way if they have information like this from you.
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Irrational Advocates and Radical Hospitality
Childhood should be fun, and foster parents can help make that happen even for children who come from hard places.
Dr. Vera Fahlberg, in “A Child’s Journey Through Placement,” stated that “every child deserves an irrational advocate.” Rhonda Sciortino, who was raised in foster care and is a dear friend, states that foster families practice “radical hospitality.”
I hope and pray for each person reading this article to practice irrational advocacy and radical hospitality for every child that joins their family through foster care, kinship care or adoption.
Thank you, Irene Clements, for your wise words and irrational advocacy for foster children and the foster parents who welcome them!
What has been your experience as a foster parent? Please share so others may learn. Please share this blog with others in honor of National Foster Care Month.
Image credit: Glenn Beltz; Mindaugas Danys; cheriejoyful