Lessons learned from a former foster dad
1. Know your limits
Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “We boil at different degrees.” There’s no prize for fostering the longest, having the most kids, or saying “yes” every time your caseworker asks about the next potential placement. If there is such a prize in any of these categories, it’s a dangerous one. There is a high cost(s) to barreling through and white knuckling to be some kind of heroic foster dad even with the noblest of intentions.
One of your greatest acts of love to kids in foster care is having a good self-awareness for your own physical, emotional, and spiritual capacity. It might mean taking a season off from fostering or pacing yourself better or lessening the number of placements in your home. For your good and for their good. Kids coming from the trauma that led to going into foster care do not need to be re-traumatized even in the slightest ways in your care because you are beyond burned out as a foster dad.
2. Take care of yourself
Ah self-care. A foreign concept to too many of us dudes out there, including myself for far too long in my life. Your self-care is a critical investment into not just your own well-being, but for your family and the kids in your care too. As Carlos Castaneda once said, “We either make ourselves miserable or strong. The amount of work is the same.” When you’re getting the care and support you need to be healthier and stronger, you can better give the care and support the kids in your care need to do the same. Going to individual or couples therapy, finding a spiritual director, plugging into a faith community, exercising and eating better, doing a hobby. . .the list goes on and on. These are just some ideas of helpful investments into your own self-care so you can be a healthier you.
3. Be in community
Thomas McGrath once said, “How could I have come so far (And always on such dark trails?) I must have traveled by the light shining from the faces of all those I have loved.” I highly encourage finding other foster parents in your area to connect with. Some communities have great foster parent support groups. You could look into joining one or even starting one and getting the word out on social media. The most important thing though is finding a supportive community of some kind to belong to–where you can be known.
Whether it’s being part of a small group through a church or sharing life with other friends or couples who are intentional about being “real” and helping one another, community is such a crucial thing. Healthy communities like these give us a safe place to “vent”, cry together, laugh together, and lean on one another in tough times. You know you’ve found a good community of people when you feel like they’re a source of life, not another “check the box” thing that robs more life from your life.
4. Vent your emotions through healthy physical outlets
We all know that foster parenting is freaking hard. A buddy of mine who was a former marine and police officer absolutely would attest to the fact that being a foster dad has been an incredibly tough challenge. And an incredibly worthy challenge! Some of the stuff we face in foster care is incredibly frustrating (whether difficult behaviors to manage, the dysfunctions surrounding the complexity of the child welfare system, being upset and sad at the things these kids have faced/are facing and the list goes on). Finding ways to vent frustrations, sadness, and anger with physically demanding things can be a really effective way of healthy coping.
I found myself running or mountain biking nearly every day. Other foster dads I knew used weightlifting or hiking or building stuff as great physical outlets to channel their emotions and to just spend time thinking. Find out what it is that you can do to positively channel your emotions in healthy physical ways. Also be reminded that these healthy outlets shouldn’t be a replacement for also regularly sharing and processing your feelings and emotions with a spouse, friend, pastor, peer group, or counselor. In conjunction, sharing what you’re feeling and going through with others and doing physical things can be a great tag team approach to healthy coping for men.
5. Regularly put yourself in their shoes
Foster parenting is not easy, but being a kid in foster care is far more difficult. Living inside a story with an often uncertain, suspended in time outcome, dealing with layers of trauma, commonly facing separation from siblings, coping with the loss (if even temporary) of one’s bio family, enduring multiple placements, re-starting in another new school, and navigating so much transition is a reality I can barely comprehend coping with as a 43-year-old. Imagine balancing all of these things and processing all of this as a 15-year-old, while also dealing with peer pressure and the normal difficulties of adolescence. How well would you be holding up and coping if you were them? Regularly put yourself in their shoes. This means learning to listen well. As Wilson Mizner said, “A good listener is not only popular everywhere, but after a while he gets to know something.”
You’ll be reminded that it’s pretty understandable that so much of the difficult behaviors you’re facing in the home are due to kids somehow just trying to cope and find a stable footing in their lives. It’s easy to feel like so much of their acting out behaviors is a result of us doing something wrong. These feelings of defeat and failure can be just as difficult to cope with as the challenging behaviors themselves.
And while some of their negative behaviors could be the result of our negative parenting strategies (which we always need to assess), the reality is that their acting out and difficult behaviors often come from them feeling safe, loved, and in a place of security to do that. That’s a good thing. It doesn’t make dealing with these difficult things necessarily easier to handle, but it does show that you as a foster dad are offering what they most need in this time–unconditional love and safety. And with continued nurturing and safety in your home (and accessing community supports for the kids) hopefully you’ll see the frequency of difficult behaviors lessening more with time.
6. Laugh together often
Writer Anne Lamott describes laughter as “carbonated holiness.” Laughter has so much power to help us cope with things, to bond together, and to see reality in different ways. Heck, it helps release endorphins in our brains which is why we feel good after we laugh. If humor and laughter aren’t a regularity in your house, try working on that. It can be as simple as finding funny movies or YouTube clips to watch together, working on your dad joke game, and laughing at yourself more in front of them and at the things that truly are funny when we allow ourselves to access humor more. That’s huge for kids to see that you don’t always take yourself and life too seriously. This doesn’t mean trying to always use humor to help distract kids from feeling difficult feelings and minimizing difficult circumstances. Those things are important to feel honestly and fully and to process together when possible.
Humor can sometimes even be a tool to help disarm tough behaviors. I know when I worked with elementary boys in foster care, I would sometimes face anger outbursts and defiant acts that could last a while, especially if their goal was partly attention seeking. I found that a tactic that was helpful when other strategies weren’t working was creatively using humor in the right moments to distract them out of the “fight/flight” response. Then when they were in a calmer and less agitated state, we were able to talk about their feelings/behaviors and rationally discuss what a consequence would be and move on.
7. Show them you believe in them
Benjamin Disraeli once said, “The greatest good you can do for another is not just to share your riches but to reveal to him his own.” Experiencing neglect or abuse, enduring multiple foster home placements, and experiencing more emotional damage sometimes in foster care means kids in your care may be enduring a crisis of hope and a devastating loss of self-worth continually. How could these things not have sustained major damage?
One of the greatest gifts you can give them as a foster dad is simply to remind them of their intrinsic beauty and goodness–their worth! To encourage their gifts and abilities and to validate their dreams. Your belief in them, in who they are, and the gifts that they have, may just be the igniting spark that breathes life on their flame of self-worth that at times has nearly flickered out. Your belief in them will be a sure and steady footing for them to walk in the growing confidence that they are worthy of all the love and belonging that has been chipped away through the pain, loss, trauma, and complexity of circumstances swirling around inside their story thus far. This is a huge piece to strengthening your relationship with them and helping them on their journey of healing!
Thank you foster dads for making sacrifices and changing up your life for the precious and courageous kids in your care. You are making a massive impact in their lives, even if you don’t immediately or ever see the fruition of what your love and support meant to them.
Pictured above: Travis and his four sons. Before working for America’s Kids Belong, Travis was a house parent with his wife Jess, caring for 20+ elementary boys in foster care through the years at a children’s home. He was also a licensed foster parent in SC. Currently, he’s a bio/adoptive dad to 5 kids.