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The best start in life is to be born to parents who love you and are capable of caring for you until you are mature enough to care for yourself. It is what most children take for granted. Children who are in foster care do not have this support. They hurt. They know something is missing. Something is wrong. Every child who comes into foster care is in emotional pain.
Whenever we lose someone or something which is important to us, we suffer from loss. If you have experienced death or divorce or the break-up of any important relationship, you have suffered emotional hurt. You felt lonely, you felt rejected. At times you were angry about being deserted. You went through periods of feeling guilty and wondered what you might have done to cause the separation or what you might have done to prevent it. Sometimes when you were preoccupied with your own thoughts you may have found it difficult to go about doing your daily tasks. You may have found yourself irritable with others. Maybe you snapped at them when they had not really done anything to warrant such a reaction. It took a long time before you felt like taking part in normal activities again.
You might have known such suffering as an adult. Imagine what it must be like for a child to lose those the ones they have learned to depend on.
The children who come into our care have suffered at least the loss of their parents. If this is not the first placement, they have suffered the loss of parent substitutes. Many have also lost the support of their siblings. They have been separated form the place they knew as home. They have also lost many of the things they owned. When we stop to think about how much they have lost, we find it amazing they are able to adjust at all. Some never do.
As foster parents, you cannot bear the responsibility for the children's problems. You did not cause them and there is no way you can possibly make up for all of them. But there are many things you can do to help children face their pain, understand it and compensate for it.
Your first task is to recognize the severity of their pain. This is not easy. We do not like to see children in pain. In fact, one of the most important reasons you chose to become a foster parent is because you do not want children to suffer.
Facing pain with a child can make us very uncomfortable. Even as we comfort, we wish the pain would just go away. It is almost an instinctive reaction. Remember the last time you were caring for a crying infant? You checked to see if the baby was hungry, wet, or cold. After you did the things you hoped would make the child comfortable, you probably picked him up or placed him over your shoulder, gently patted the child's back and whispered softly Shh, shh. There now, don't cry.
Love and comfort will help, but as Professional Parents you will be expected to do more. If the children are to benefit from placement, they must be helped to face the pain which is the inevitable result of separation.
The social worker will be trying to help your foster children with their feelings, but you will be the one who spends the most time with them. Unless you are part of the overall treatment plan, it will not be as effective. You are in a better position to observe the child's progress and to give on the spot comfort and understanding.
Giving true comfort cannot be accomplished by pretending there is no pain. It can be accomplished by letting the child know you understand.
One of the ways to show your understanding is by keeping the losses to a minimum. This can be done by allowing children to keep as much of their past as possible. If it will help, allow the children to bring some of their things from home. These may include toys, clothes, or their own blankets. Perhaps they can have some of the same foods and as much of their previous routine as is reasonable.
Most of all, you can help children keep alive their memories, both good and bad. This is very important, because if children are to profit from placement, they must understand and sort out their mixed feelings. They must be able to freely express their love, their hatred, and their fears.
No matter how miserable the past is it is never totally negative. Children may cling to the very slightest evidence that they were treated well. You may sometimes find it difficult to understand how children can idolize relationships which you know were far from ideal. Sometimes it is even more difficult to hear children berate their parents. We do not like to think about parents' cruelty to their children. But if the children are not allowed to talk about their mixed feelings, they will not learn to understand themselves. If they are then led to believe these very normal feelings should be hidden, they will feel something is wrong with them. Their self-esteem will suffer.
You can help by allowing children to speak freely and by not being judgmental. There is no need for you to justify any of their parents' undesirable behavior. There is a need for you to let the children know it is normal for them to have mixed feelings about themselves and their parents. When they know their feelings are acceptable, they begin to sort them out. This is a very slow process and needs to be repeated again and again.
When you accept children's feelings, you are accepting the children. When you accept the children, you are helping them to accept themselves.
We have seen that it can be very difficult to prepare a child to move back with their family. You have always known it was a possibility, but that does not seem to make it any easier. You know the child who came into your home did not come from an ideal home and you are very concerned about his returning there. You have worked so hard to help the child with many problems. You have come to love the child and have seen many changes. Now you are afraid of a slide backwards and it feels as though all you have done is for nothing. You will find it hard to understand how the agency can return the child to the parent's home.
You cannot see any evidence of change. There have been changes, even though the changes may not have been as great as you would like. It may help to think about the possible changes.
Sometimes when people have severe problems are helped to get themselves together when they have a chance to work on those problems without the constant daily pressure of the daily care of the child. They may have undergone counseling and have learned to feel better about themselves. If they do feel better about themselves, it will be easier for them not to use the child as a scapegoat for their own problems. If they have been helped by the agency, they now know this is a resource they can use in the future.
The most important change of all is the change in the child who has now had more experience outside the home. The child has known you and others like you, and now has more models to chose from as he decides what kind of an adult he wants to become. He is older and can better protect himself. He knows how to get help if it is needed.
Children should not be deprived of being with their families except for the gravest of reasons. By being with their own families, children have the best chance to truly know their parents and to understand their own place in the scheme of things. This is very important for healthy emotional development.
What you have given the children will never be lost. You have been with them, have understood and comforted them through one of the most painful periods of their lives....that time when they had to live away from their parents.