by Ashley Bennett, Director of Trauma-Informed Care
I think a pretty good analogy for the foster care system is that of being on a roller coaster, right? So many ups and downs and twists and turns. It’s so easy to get on that roller coaster.
For birth family members they are on that roller coaster because of what has happened to them in their life and the coping mechanisms they have adapted, along with their fears and grief now that their children have been taken from them. They’re on that roller coaster due to untreated mental health issues, drug use, poverty, domestic violence, & lack of social support.
Often times, our case work staff hops on that rollercoaster too. Maybe they get on the rollercoaster because of their own stories or maybe the stress and overwhelming nature of their job pulls them on. Either way, a good number of the professionals we are engaging with in the foster care system are on the rollercoaster sitting next to the birth family members.
When the adults in a child’s life are on the roller coaster, they are going to naturally bring the child on the ride with them too. The child isn’t going to have a choice because the adults are modeling that getting on the roller coaster is what you do.
Now, as a foster parent we are given a ticket to ride the roller coaster. The twists and turns of the system will often throw us and we’ll find ourselves there in the seat next to our child’s birth family and case worker. We won’t remember how we got there, but we’ll be there. And when ALL the adults in a child’s life are riding the rollercoaster, he’ll have no choice but to get on and he will have to experience the uncertainties, anxieties, and fears of the ride. This doesn’t sound good for any of us, especially the child.
So, I want to suggest something else. I can’t make the birth family or case worker get off the ride. I can support them and provide the kind of relationship that models what it looks like to stand on the ground and watch the coaster go by, but I can’t pull them off the ride.
The only person I can get off the ride is myself. If I can stand on the sidewalk in front of the roller coaster and smile and wave as everyone rides by, guess who I might be able to get standing next to me? The child who sees that maybe it’s not so bad on the ground and maybe he doesn’t have to ride this particular coaster and all its ups and downs. That maybe HE AND I can adopt coping strategies that bring us health and wellness even as the rollercoaster circles around us.
So how do we do this for ourselves and our children?
Let’s find safe outlets for our own thoughts and feelings about the roller coaster.
We need to find people in our life that can help us process what is going on, so our child doesn’t get an unfiltered emotional response from us. This will require us to do our own work with our spouse, a friend, or a professional counselor. This is one of the reasons the Restore Network exists—we want you to talk to us about your questions and concerns and feelings so we can sit in it with you and help you feel less alone. We want to be the person on the sidewalk standing with you and your child waving at the roller coaster as it goes by.
Let’s reconsider what we tell our children about the twists and turns of the roller coaster.
You and I both know that on Monday your child is moving to a Great Aunt and by Thursday it’s off. On Monday court is scheduled to determine permanency and someone important doesn’t show and it gets delayed two months. Too often this information is thrown at our children too early in the process and we give them a front row ticket to the ride.
What if instead, we paused when we got new information and we gave it some time to see if it sticks around. Preparing kids for transitions is so important but often in foster care we prepare them for things that never actually happen, causing them unnecessary harm and anxieties. What if we protected them from this instead?
So, let’s consider doing a few things differently. Let’s stop talking about the case progression in front of our children even if we think they aren’t paying attention, they usually are. Let’s not have a conversation with a case worker in front of them. Let’s talk to the professionals who are visiting with our child about why we aren’t sharing things with them yet and ask them to do the same. Again, we can’t control what other people say but this is an opportunity to teach our workers about how to best provide felt-safety for our children. Let’s not give specific dates to our children because more often than not, things change, and then we’ve unnecessarily caused them some anxieties. Let’s consider talking to our children about court only after things have happened and are definitive. (When termination of parental rights time came for my kids, I only told them that we were entering the season in which the judge would start making some decisions and I only told them termination happened when it was final in court.) Now for older youth who are actively involved in the process and their own advocate, obviously we don’t want to hold information back from these youths so let’s just be there to remind them of the twists and turns when we give them the information.
Let’s respond to our child’s questions and concerns with empathy and understanding.
Even if we do a great job of explaining to our child why they are in foster care & paint a good picture of what is going to happen, there are still going to be moments when our child struggles with a variety of emotions related to their losses and their confusion of what is to come. In these moments, we don’t have to always have the right words or answers. What our child needs most is our presence and our empathy. It is important to say things like, “I am sorry this is so hard” when they’re expressing big feelings and there’s nothing we can do to make it better. In these moments, don’t say things that aren’t true just to make the child feel better, just sit with them so they feel less alone in all of it.
Let’s give ourselves grace and empathy as well and remember who holds it all.
And guess what, there will be moments like this for us too. Moments where the roller coaster ride is just too much. And in these moments, it’s important to give ourselves grace and empathy as well. We are doing a big thing and we are loving well and there is a cost to all of this. In these moments, we can model for our child what it looks like to grieve well. What it looks like to sit in the gray and not know what is going to happen next. We can model for them what it looks like to trust God in the midst of chaos and confusion. Because while it might seem like this roller coaster has no end in sight and we’re tired of its twist and turns, it lies in the hands of a great God who sees us and our child. Who wants good for us both in the midst of the challenging season in which we find ourselves. He is in the business of making beauty from ashes.
And He is standing right there next to us on the sidewalk.