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How Foster Care Can Make You a Better Parent

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One of my favorite parts of my job with our foster care agency is when I get to go speak to almost licensed foster parents who are on the last week of classes. This class is usually a panel discussion where the foster parents ask questions to an assorted group of “experts” which might be experienced foster parents, attorneys, caseworkers, etc. There were lots of panels where I got to be the foster parent on display, but now I mostly get to watch these conversations and then present some information at the end about ongoing support resources.

The reason I love this experience so much is because it’s fascinating to hear what future foster parents are struggling with on the cusp of actually taking placements. They have great questions that sometimes revolve around familiar themes (How do you handle kids who rage? What is the court process like? Why does everything take so long?), but sometimes I get caught off-guard with a new question that reveals something I hadn’t yet put into words. This last class had one of those moments.

The future foster parent was having a dialogue with a caseworker about how to help a child feel more at home. The caseworker suggested that you treat the foster child the same as your biological children, but the future foster parent was worried that she isn’t always very gentle with her kids, but she wants to be that way with the foster child– will they see that as unequal treatment?

So here’s what I want you to know about becoming a foster parent– it changes how you treat kids. ALL KIDS. Even if you’ve been at this parenting thing for years, you start to have a different filter as you look at your own kids. Consequences that used to seem totally appropriate and even necessary now seem harsh and illogical. Boundaries and structure that used to seem like overkill now feel entirely appropriate and helpful. You see a tantruming kid in the grocery store and instead of assuming they’re a spoiled human being, you wonder if maybe they’re afraid of something or overwhelmed. You start to see every interaction with the neighbor kids not as a bother, but as potential opportunities to invest in their lives.

What they don’t tell you in foster parent training is that becoming a foster parent will make you a different– I would even say BETTER– parent to your kids, however they came to you. It isn’t that you’re a better parent than someone else, but you may become a better version of the parent you were before.

And it isn’t just about how you see your kids or how you deal with them, it’s about how you learn to understand yourself and your own needs. Becoming a foster parent will teach you the importance of appropriate self-care as you find your boundaries and learn to ask for help. It will make you identify your own trauma triggers as kids push buttons you didn’t even know you had. You will learn how to handle marital conflict in ways that don’t scar your kids because now you have an outside observer who is very keenly aware of any amount of family discord.

We often talk about the potential foster care has to change your life in negative ways. And it CAN. It can cause tremendous stress, but through that stress you can develop a very necessary change of perspective. The grace you’ve decided to offer to this foster child, you now decide to offer to your own kids, too. The gentleness you bring into your interactions with this foster child becomes your new normal as you work through problems in your world. You learn you can’t control the future for these kids or for the kids you birthed, which is a terrifying and necessary realization that allows you to trust God with the future. You stop worrying so much about protecting your kids from any level of potential suffering and start to help them learn how to deal with the reality of suffering that exists for all of us.

Of course this isn’t a given. It can be that foster care brings out the worst in you as a parent and as a human being. That’s a pretty good sign this gig isn’t for you. And that doesn’t mean you aren’t an awesome parent or that you don’t have anything to offer the foster care world! It’s just that bringing an outside child into your home isn’t a good fit for every family and the last thing a traumatized child needs is to come into a home that will cause him more trauma. It could be that you just need a break or that this particular child wasn’t the right fit, but there is genuinely no shame in realizing foster care isn’t the right thing for your family! For every foster family, we need lots of support families to come around them. This is also valuable and important work.

I can’t imagine the kind of parent I might be if I wouldn’t have started out in the group home, foster care and adoption world. This introduction to parenting has humbled me and given me lots of grace for parents dealing with challenges. To other parents wondering how a foster child might acclimate to their home and feeling a little hesitant about the current state of things at your house, I want to encourage you that foster kids need you just the way you are AND they’ll change you in ways you didn’t expect. You don’t have to be a perfect parent to start out on this journey, but you just might be a better one by the time you finish it.

If you’re up for the challenging world of foster care, come check out Christian Heritage for more information!

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