In March of 2019, the National Council for Adoption published an article in their Adoption Advocate newsletter called “Increasing Permanency: Seven Principles for Building Emotionally Stable Foster & Adoptive Families.” In it, writers Fay L. Hall and Jeff Merkert begin by building a case suggesting that part of a parent’s role in the life of their children is to help them manage, regulate, and process their various emotions (happiness, fear, anger, sadness, etc…). The authors rightfully suggest that these emotions are not in-and-of-themselves wrong, but should be developed in a positive, healthy way, in the context of a safe, loving, and appropriate home environment.
This development process can become even more essential for adopted and foster children. Hall and Merkert write, “Children who experience loss of birth family and/or abuse may continue to be bombarded with ‘sads’ and ‘scareds’ every day of their lives.” It is the responsibility of the parent to help them through these oftentimes painful emotions.
It is with that responsibility in mind that Hall and Merkert provide seven key principles that foster and adoptive parents should know, understand, and appropriately respond to, in the parenting and nurturing of their children. Here are those seven principles:
1. Brains Intuitively Fixate on Fear
Each of us has a stress response system that is built into the wiring of our body. This system is responsible for how we respond physically and chemically to periods of freight, anger, anxiety, stress, etc. . . . Typically, when our stress response system is activated, it is difficult, perhaps even impossible for us to focus on anything else other than the stressor itself. Hall and Merkert use the example of an amusement park: “It would be completely impossible to do higher math problems while hurtling down a roller coaster.” In other words, the increased level of stress that our body would be experiencing as a result of the roller coaster would keep our brains from being able to focus on virtually anything else.
As that relates to our adoptive and foster children, many of them come from difficult backgrounds in which their stress response system was frequently, if not constantly engaged, in a significant way. His or her experiences with abuse, neglect, abandonment, and trauma have left their response system almost perpetually engaged, making it difficult for them to feel safe. They have developed what Hall and Merkert call a “negative internal working model” which could sound something like this to children from hard places: “I am bad, you are bad, the world is unsafe.” Even in the security of a safe and loving foster or adoptive home, it can take years for a child to un-develop this working model because of the years of trauma many of them have been through.
As parents of children from hard places, we need to understand that it is not enough for a child to be safe; they must also feel safe, and this can take time. Whether or not a child truly has any reason to be fearful in the present does not change the fact that they experienced high levels of ongoing fear in their past, and the results of that do not go away quickly.
2. Limbic Brains Harmonize
The limbic system is one of the primary parts of our neurochemistry that is responsible for feelings and emotions. According to Hall and Merkert, a phenomenon called limbic resonance exists. This phenomenon, according to a 2016 article by Bylin & Hughes called “The Neurobiology of Attachment Focused Therapy,” states that, “Emotions are contagious, largely because their bodily affective expressions tend to evoke a similar affective expression in the person who perceives them.” In other words, the expression “Human emotions are contagious” summarizes Hall and Merkert. This contagious effect is how typical, empathetic connections are made between individuals. The emotional state that a child projects outwardly can often become the emotional state of the parent—and vice versa.
Hall and Merkert go on to discuss circumstances that disrupt these connections. As it relates to foster and adopted children, they indicate, “Children removed from their birth parents because of neglect or abuse are often in a constant state of confusion and fear.” This confused, fearful state prevents them from making the healthy emotional connections that would normally occur.
As a result of these concepts, it becomes essential that adoptive and foster parents patiently respond to their children in calm and appropriate ways as they seek to develop a sense of felt safety (and actual safety) in the heart and mind of their children. Parents should provide clear expectations, to avoid confusion on the part of the child, as well as foster an environment, that over time, will feel safe to a child who desperately wants to know what it’s like to even feel such security.
3. Parents Define Children’s Experience
As Hall and Merkert introduce this next principle, they use the classic example of a toddler who has fallen down. In the moment before the toddler decides how to respond to this sudden accident, they will look at their parent’s reaction to the fall. This parental response determines how the child chooses to respond. The parent, through their words, body language, and overall response, have defined the child’s experience of falling. This process continues to occur even as the toddler grows into childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood.
According to Hall and Merkert, “Just by responding to everyday situations in life, parents model and teach values, ethics, emotional regulation, relationship and life skills. Children internalize these responses one after another.”
Adoptive and foster parents still have the opportunity to help define a child or teenager’s life experience, even if that child grew up in a world of very negative and hurtful life experiences. Parents must exercise great patience as they help their children define what might be a brand new world for them—a world quite different from their existence prior to entering foster care or prior to their adoption. But their world can be redefined over time—and that is the great challenge of the foster or adoptive parent.
4. Parents Must Project Positive Outcomes
In this section of the article, Hall and Merkert introduce the concept of “negative bias” as it relates to children from hard places. Oftentimes in the experience of the child, life is bad, the world is bad, and people are bad. This mentality is developed over time as children sadly continue to experience what is mostly the negative side of life. This becomes how the child views the world: as inherently bad, as negative, as evil, as broken. Certainly those things can be true about the world in certain situations, but it is the responsibility of the parent to help the child develop a new mentality—a healthy “positive bias.”
There is a simple principle at play here, according to Hall and Merkert, which is, “To have positive and encouraged children, parents must be positive and encouraging.” Parents who are negative, cynical, and/or depressed run the likely risk of raising children who are the same way. That’s why it’s so important to project a positive persona, teaching your children to expect positive outcomes in life.
5. Parents Must Manage Their Effect
“…most people hope to model for their children how to be truly happy. But are these same people willing to model how to be unhappy too?” This profound question raised by Hall and Merkert seeks to challenge parents to manage their external (and even internal) effect, knowing that their children are watching and listening and are always absorbing. The old adage of “practice what you preach” is so applicable here as Hall and Merkert remind us that, “It’s not enough to tell children how to handle feelings of fear and sadness. The skill must be demonstrated to them.”
One word of caution here: adoptive and foster parents should not completely hide their feelings from their children. Yes, parents should remain calm in the face of an escalated child, but that does not mean that a parent cannot, at the appropriate time, communicate their feelings and opinions about a situation to the child. This can actually help to create a relational bond between parent and child as honest communication is shared between both parties. This also positively models for the child how to appropriately handle intense emotions that are tempting him or her to escalate.
6. Children Learn What Works
“Humans are born completely dependent and are hard-wired to learn from the ones they depend upon.” These words from Hall and Merkert set up the understanding that as parents, as the ones that a child depends on, it is essential to understand that the child is constantly learning from his or her caregiver: from the caregiver’s words, actions, attitude, demeanor, and responses. They see what works and they see what doesn’t and adapt themselves accordingly.
It is necessary for parents to understand that their adopted and foster children may have previously learned from caregivers that were not positive role models and from situations that were not healthy, safe, or appropriate. So show them what works. Show them what it looks like to be healthy, positive adults that maintain their composure in the face of intense adversity.
7. Children Need to be Enjoyed
Worth, value, self-confidence . . . these are critical components of a child’s identity. And according to Hall and Merkert, “Children are designed to learn who they are and their value through their parent’s eyes.” This is an incredible responsibility for a parent, but also an amazing opportunity to help a child develop a confident self-identity that recognizes their value in the family and in the world.
A child’s perceived value begins forming at the earliest of ages as they recognize and internalize whether or not a caregiver is providing for their needs. “If I’m not being taken care of by my parents, then I must not be worthy of being taken care of,” might be the thought process of a young child. This is often the mentality of children and teenagers who come from hard places, who have been adopted, or who reside in foster care. Parents must help them break this mentality and assure them of their great value.
And so it becomes important for parents to praise their children often—not in any kind of fake or general way, but through genuine encouragement and affirmation that speaks to a child’s specific strengths, positive attributes, and healthy personality traits. The child needs to be enjoyed—to be appreciated—to feel loved and valued, and they need to internalize those feelings into their own self-identity. Parents can help them do exactly that.
In their concluding remarks, Hall and Merkert refer to the homes of adoptive and foster parents as “sanctuaries for healing, giving children opportunities to process the fears engendered by the past.” Parents provide for their children a safe, loving, and appropriate home environment, but that is just the first step. Through patience, through intentionality, and through unrelenting commitment, parents can help their children process their past hurt and help them develop into happy, healthy, positive adults who are capable of contributing incredible things to society.
It is also worth adding that in addition to the care and support of a loving family, there are countless professional services available to children in need and to the families that care for them. While the parents might be the “first line of defense” in the healthy development of their adopted or foster children, don’t ever negate the importance of seeking the help of seasoned professionals who can help support you and support your children.
In their article, Hall and Merkert have done an excellent job identifying these seven key principles that are essential for adoptive and foster parents to understand and implement as they seek to help in the development of their children. Being a foster or adoptive parent is truly tough—hopefully, this helps to make it a bit easier.