Whatever your reasons for becoming a foster parent, it’s a pretty safe assumption that you did it because you care about kids and what they’re going through. But what happens when you have a foster care placement and you struggle to connect with them? You strive to make them a part of your family, but their behaviors make it difficult. Or maybe they just have a difficult personality, or your personalities don’t mesh.
You want to love them, you want to feel compassion for them and enjoy spending time with them, but you just don’t. What can you do?
First, let’s just get this out of the way. Most likely, your foster child’s annoying behaviors are a consequence of the abuse or neglect they’ve suffered, and/or the trauma they’ve experienced being brought into foster care. Their repulsive behaviors (and yes, some kids have them) are a coping mechanism designed (quite effectively) to protect them physically, emotionally, and mentally. Knowing and understanding the root of your foster child’s behavior can help you separate the behavior from the child, and this helps you experience more compassion towards them.
Still, even knowing why your foster child acts the way he does, you may struggle to feel connected to him. It’s the difference between what you know to be in true in your head, and what you may feel intuitively in your heart. If you’re in this situation, know that you are not alone, and there are things you can do to help improve that connection. Here are four strategies that might help.
1. Take care of yourself.
One of the most important things you can do as a parent (foster or otherwise), is to take care of yourself. This may seem counterintuitive, or maybe especially difficult if you’re already berating yourself for the feelings of annoyance you have towards your foster child. But if you’re running on empty, your patience and your temper are more likely to be short, and you will find it more difficult to respond appropriately to her. Get enough sleep. Don’t neglect the people and relationships that are important to you. Make time and space for the things that bring you joy, whether that’s a creative pursuit or an indulgent dessert or binge watching something on Netflix. This is not selfish. Just like airplane passengers are instructed to secure their own oxygen masks before tending to another, you have to take care of yourself so you can take care of these little ones.
2. Fake it till you make it.
One of my college friends used to dress up every time she needed to take a test, saying that looking confident made her feel more confident. I’ve since learned there’s a lot of science and research to back up the idea that we can sometimes trick our minds into believing something, just by acting like it’s already true. We often let our feelings dictate our actions, but the reverse can also be true – we can let our actions dictate our feelings. So act affectionate toward your foster child even if you’re not feeling affectionate. Tell him that you missed him when he comes home from school. Listen to what she’s saying like it’s the most interesting thing in the world, even if you don’t understand it. Act it out, simply because you believe that your foster child deserves this kind of response from you, and trust that the feelings and connection will come in time.
3. Give it time.
I’ve had thirteen different placements (so far) in the time I’ve been a foster parent, and I’ve connected to some of my kids very quickly. Others have taken a lot longer – it took a solid year for me to feel really connected to the child who is now very much my daughter. At times, I’ve felt enormous guilt over this, believing that I should automatically love and adore them all the same. Then I spoke with friends who have biological children – who clearly love their children dearly – who admitted that some of those bonds formed more quickly than others. And if this is true of a baby, how much more must it be true for some of our foster children, who come to us with taxing behaviors and defense mechanisms? Sometimes connection just takes time, and there’s no shame in that. Be prepared to wait, and until then, keep doing the right things and keep trying.
4. Try, try, try again.
No matter what, don’t give up trying to find ways to connect with your foster child. Be proactive and intentional, but don’t get discouraged. Your child’s lack of trust, their behavioral challenges, their not-so-pleasant coping skills didn’t develop in a day, and you can’t undo the damage in a day, either. In fact, you may not be able to undo it at all. But that doesn’t mean you give up trying. Look for points of connection – can you cultivate a shared interest? Maybe that just means you figure out what is important to them and study it in as much detail as you possibly can. If something isn’t working, try something else. Keep putting in the time and effort, day after day, believing you’ll get there.
Fellow foster parents, what would you add? What strategies have you used when you’ve struggled to connect to your foster child?