Fostering a child with a disability can be a wonderful undertaking. Nothing is more selfless or more heartbreaking or more rewarding than helping a child who is not your own to complete physical and cognitive tasks each day. You are relieving her suffering and helping her become the person she was meant to be.
Many parents agree to foster children with disabilities because they see an unmet need and want to help. It is important, however, to know how your life will change if you agree to foster a child with disabilities. The good news is that your foster arrangement will likely pay for many of the services that your child requires.
Before making an official decision to foster, it is important to know exactly how you will be required to assist your child throughout his or her life. You may need to change your schedule, your job, or your living space to accommodate your new guest.
Once you begin your journey, however, you may discover that your life is more meaningful, purposeful, and love-filled than you ever dreamed it could be.
Types of Disabilities
Some children adopted from foster care have ongoing medical needs that require regular intervention. They are limited in their ability to care for themselves each day. These children may require 24-hour assistance from skilled caregivers.
Chronic health problems include diabetes, asthma, cerebral palsy, Aids, cancer, epilepsy, spina bifida, and congenital heart problems. They require the help of medical specialists daily. Those with medical backgrounds or experience fostering similar types of children are ideal to foster children with chronic health problems.
Other children, such as those with Down syndrome, have minor-to-severe difficulties with social skills, communication, self-care, and motivation. They may also have cognitive or physical challenges. These children may require daily physical or occupational therapy and behavior charts that remind them which tasks to complete each day. You may spend a lot of time taking children to parks and playgroups so that they can get fresh air and daily socialization.
Still other children have emotional disorders arising from troubled pasts. They may have been exposed to illegal substances early on. Such children may need help regulating their emotions, expressing their anger appropriately, or asking for help when they need it.
Tips for Your Journey
Many parents find that children with emotional or learning disabilities improve greatly after they are brought into a stable environment. Therapy, private tutoring, and behavioral intervention are just a few of the steps parents can take to help children overcome their developmental challenges. Many times, the very presence of a loving, stable family improves behavior greatly.
Certain actions, however, may not get better with time. If you find that routines, consequences, and affirming words do not seem to be changing certain parts of your child’s behavior, it may be time to enlist the help of a professional. Many children become more respectful, patient, and remorseful after a little therapy. Here, they can talk about their pasts in a nonjudgmental setting and understand that many of the things that have happened to them are not their fault. They can begin to deal compassionately with their failures and learn to cooperate respectfully in a family setting.
Many adopted children also deal with learning disabilities as a result of their traumatic pasts. They may have very low self-esteem, or they may have gotten a late start since emotional instability in their daily lives has led to anxiety that has left them unable to learn.
Cognitive overload is a situation where the teacher is giving too many tasks to a learner who becomes overwhelmed and cannot process the information. The language processing demands of activities go beyond the language processing abilities of the students.
This may be a particular issue for foster children in a new environment. In these cases, it is critical to break tasks down into smaller pieces that are easier for kids to grasp. Tutors, learning centers, and resource centers at public schools can help kids learn and have success with smaller tasks before they are required to catch up to grade level. An IEP or 504 may be necessary to start getting your child the services they need to be successful. It is important to be patient with your child as they make up for lost time.
Children with emotional pasts often respond well to “forgiveness therapy.” This is the process by which the wronged person lets go of their resentment and treats the wrongdoer with compassion.
Foster children especially need to know that they are loved even when they misbehave. Many have been abandoned or mistreated by caregivers who did not control their emotions when children misbehaved. While avoiding consequences for misbehavior is out of the question, it is important to let your children know that they are loved no matter what they do. Drawing on walls, running outside without permission, and sibling fights are common behaviors for children to exhibit in the beginning. Yelling at your foster child will only escalate the situation. If you can keep your voice calm and issue consequences while remaining relaxed, you can often diffuse their emotions and win them over in the process.
Any opportunities for healthy bonding should be embraced. Bake with your child or dance around the kitchen and sing. Sensory experiences help your child to associate good feelings with her caregivers, which may be new for her. Any outdoor activities that help kids release endorphins and burn up energy will also help your little one to regulate her own emotions.
A low-sugar diet filled with as many fruits and veggies as kids want will fill their tummy and keep them from acting out because of hunger. At first, you may find yourself giving a lot of choices and alternatives to get kids to eat decent meals. As time goes on, however, you will be able to choose proteins, dairy products, and vitamin-rich foods that you know your child will love. You may be surprised at how quickly she grows during her first year in your home! Be prepared to borrow some hand-me-downs and purchase some discount clothes as it is common for newly adopted children to go up one size each season until they level off.
Caring for Children with Disabilities
When you are fostering, there is usually extra funding available to you each month to help care for the basic needs of your child. Many of these benefits can be continued even after you to adopt your foster child if you decide to. Be sure to take full advantage of this as you will have regular appointments with physicians, therapists, or in-home care specialists that will cost money. Learn how much your child’s health insurance will cover and how much extra care they will require. Be sure to save any bills and receipts and let the person handling your case know how much you are spending on care. Reach out to local nurses, tutors, or child psychologists to see if they offer any discounts to local families.
Come up with a regular schedule for doctor visits, in-home care, and learning specialists. Your child may learn to see these specialists as members of the family. My child’s tutor, for example, plays basketball with my son sometimes when they are done with their schoolwork. Put your schedule in a visible place in your home and be sure to discuss it each day with your child. He will begin to feel safe as he learns what his day will be like and who he will be interacting with. Colors, stickers, and behavior charts also help kids to know that they are making progress toward their goals. Additionally, be sure to schedule in time to take care of yourself or you will burn out quickly.
You will want to be sure that your employer knows about your situation so that you can provide adequate care for your child. If you have a child that requires regular care in order to function, your doctor’s appointments and inability to work nights or weekends are understandable.
Some children, especially those with mild learning disabilities, are aware that they are different from others. It is important to continually affirm these children for their positive attributes so that they will develop a healthy sense of self. Find tasks that get them out in the sunshine and interacting with their peers in a meaningful way. It is critical to their future and their attitude toward their disability. Your child with a learning disability, for example, may enjoy taking the garbage out or driving to the store with you because he gets some quality one-on-one time with his foster mom or dad.
When it comes to self-care, be certain to tap into your support network such as community organizations, church groups, and trusted friends and family. There will be times that you will feel desperate for love and support or just someone to tell your hopes and fears to. Online support groups can connect you with foster parents of children with disabilities very similar to those of your child. That “I’m so glad it’s not just me” feeling will provide you with great comfort and hope during your low points.
Some folks may be able to take over while you run errands or give yourself a break or time to think. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and tell them exactly what they can do to provide support and encouragement. Many people would love to help you but are unsure about what would alleviate your workload and what would make more work for you. A weekly task that will be easy for your helper and a break for you is a win-win.
Be sure to take care of yourself with “small treats” during those times when you are providing a lot of care. A hot latte, manicure, or spa day are great things to look forward to when your life is being poured out for someone else.
Many foster or adoptive parents take comfort in their hobbies or places where they can still “be me.” Developing a hobby can help you stay sane during a very unpredictable time in your life. Consider sewing, writing, or gardening as outlets for your creative self while your responsible self is in overdrive.
Remember that you are doing heaven’s work. Fostering children with disabilities is a difficult and noble undertaking that will mature you and make you more grateful every day. Remember to keep things in perspective and maintain a “life” outside of your caregiving. It will nurture you as you seek to nurture those who desperately need your love and attention.
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