Becoming a parent for the first time can be an anxiety-inducing process. For the majority of soon-to-be parents, there is a plethora of resources to help reduce the anxiety. Information abounds on making birth plans, choosing the right baby name, cloth diapers vs. disposable, baby-proofing your house, and many other baby-related subjects.

But when I became a parent, I was not having a baby. I was planning to become a parent in a radically different way.

We had always talked about growing our family through foster care, and when we decided to take the plunge, we looked at the areas of greatest need, considered our situation, and gave our preferences based on that. This meant that we were “expecting” a sibling group of two or three children, same gender, between the ages of 4-9.

Resources to reduce my anxiety were scarce-to-none.

Initial training helped us learn about all the paperwork and appointments we were going to face, and a little about how to support the children who may come to live in our home, but the day we drove to meet our two oldest boys I had more unanswered questions than helpful resources. Three in particular were burning in my mind.

  • How do you parent traumatized children?
  • How do you build trust with 8- and 9-year-old children who have never been given any reasons to trust anyone?
  • And what do you do when they decide not to listen to the strangers who have suddenly become Mom and Dad?

Well, it’s been one year since our older two boys moved in with us (their little brother, age three, joined our family five months later), and the answers have been slow in coming, mostly found through trial-and-error.

We’re still figuring out some of the answers, but interestingly enough, those questions all seem to have the same answer: Structure.

How do you parent traumatized children?

Provide structure. Children who have experienced trauma, which the majority of foster children have, feel as though their lives are out of control all the time. A structured environment is predictable; it reduces the chaos that has defined a trauma-filled life. Create clear, simple rules and boundaries and stick to them. Explain expectations and appropriate consequences and rewards, and then follow through. Every time. No one likes consequences, but once children begin to see continuity they start to feel secure. Which brings me to the next question.

How do you build trust with children who have never been given any reasons to trust anyone?

Provide Structure. Be consistent with expectations, consequences, rewards and schedules. When you’re consistent you become predictable. Being predictable is the first step on the road to building trust. A large contributor to the chaos that defines a foster child’s life is the unpredictability of people and situations. Sticking to the same hour-long bedtime routine may be difficult, but it becomes a comfort when our boys know exactly what’s coming next.

We do what we can to keep a consistent and predictable schedule, but things inevitably happen that disrupt our schedule, which often disrupts our boys’ sense of safety and comfort. It is in those moments of perceived psychological danger when our boys’ behavior tends to spiral out of control.

What do you do when they don’t listen?

I’m not talking about normal kid stuff. I’m talking about intense, 2-hour, toddler-like tantrums from a nine-year-old.  But the answer is still, Provide Structure.

Respond the same way every time. Be predictable, and don’t add to the chaos that has filled their brain. Try to remain calm, because your demeanor will affect theirs. We always tell our boys that we want to talk about what they are feeling, but we will not do it when they are disrespecting other people’s feelings or throwing a fit. We choose to ignore negative attention-seeking behavior, and give verbal encouragement as soon as our boys adjust their behavior and calm down.

We address any behavior that was inappropriate or against the rules, and give suggestions for other ways to handle the overwhelming feelings they may be experiencing.

We have established a predictable routine for how we will respond to that kind of behavior. That doesn’t mean that our kids’ behavior doesn’t escalate, but it does mean that they know what’s going to happen every time it does, which provides some comfort even when they’re feeling out of control for other reasons.

It’s difficult to be a first-time parent no matter how you come to it. All I know is my own experience, and it felt extremely difficult trying to figure it out without many resources or friends to turn to with similar experiences.

Trial-and-error is still the name of the game in our house, but the most important thing we’ve learned in our first year of parenting is that children need structure to feel safe. Kids who have lived in foster care, especially, need predictably to reduce the chaos that has defined their lives. And that’s the best advice I can give to anyone anxiously awaiting becoming a first time foster parent.