From Agony & Angst to Assurance & Acceptance - Fostering Even When It's Hard

The 3/1/2-year-old sauntered confidently to me, a new T-shirt and shorts in his hands. "Daddy," he said, "Look. Correct side." I glanced at the print and design on the front of his shirt, one he had chosen for himself from his chest of drawers. "Yes K," I said with a smile. "It's the correct side. Good job!" Then I patted him on his shoulder and beamed at him. "Well done. I'm glad you now know how to wear your shirt the right way round." And the little boy's face broke out into a brilliant smile as he nodded his head sagely. He then picked up his dirty clothes, and made his way to the laundry basket, dumping the clothes in them as he merrily made his way out of the room.

It's been 15 months since little K joined our family. Life has been a bumpy ride, but there are moments of joy.

I never believed this day would arrive. Just a few weeks back our foster kid was happily wearing everything the wrong way round - shirt, shorts, even shoes. And we had been on the receiving end of comments by many well-meaning people, who seemed to have the idea that it is better for parents to wear the clothes for their kids than to let them get it wrong, even if the purpose was to train the child and help him or her to develop valuable skills associated with independence and autonomy. 

And it has been an uphill task almost the entire time our foster child has been with us; all fifteen months in total. Indeed when K first came to us at the age of 2, he barely had any words to speak; and the only way he knew how to communicate was through biting and screaming. It seemed to be pure agony and much angst for us; especially since we constantly had to deal with the effects of his behaviour; with both boys bearing the brunt of the biting and other bodily inflictions.

But we chose to persevere. 

Little K during Chinese New Year 2021. He was very happy visiting the various uncles and aunties. 

For me it was a daily affair, repeating the same words each morning as I got him ready for childcare, preparing his clothes and changing him, before sending him off to his transport. And the process was repeated in the evenings, receiving him at home, cooking and getting him to eat all of his food, before getting him changed and ready for bed, with all the associated nightly rituals.

It was hard at the start, with the little boy seeming to resist everything that we did - from complaining about what shoes to wear, to insisting on a toy to bring along to school; and then refusing to eat everything on his plate, and protesting at each one of the bedtime rituals. I sounded like a broken tape recorder on repeat mode, constantly having to be firm on the same things each day.

But things did get better. In the midst of all the scoldings, "time in"s and withdrawal of privileges, little K started to become more obedient. He started taking his dirty clothes to the laundry, he started clearing his plate and cutlery, he stopped throwing tantrums when we told him he had to leave the playground, he stopped kicking and screaming when he was told to stop playing and go to sleep.

One day our younger son went to him and said, "K, do you know why Daddy has to scold you? Because he loves you. And if he doesn't love you he wouldn't scold you. Daddy wants you to do the right thing; that's why he scolds you. Do you understand?"

And little K nodded seriously.

K has indeed grown in confidence and independence since he first joined our family. He enjoys time at the beach where he can dig around in the sand and watch the waves go by.

Fostering is about assurance and affirmation. 

When a child is placed in a foster family, it is a drastic change for him or her; and especially because of the circumstances of foster care, the child's previous environment is largely far from ideal. He or she therefore continues to operate with a mindset of distrust and fear, reacting in a primal manner to the overtures of the foster parents, even if these appear to be benign or loving. A quote I always share at workshops is that "the children who need love the most will always ask for it in the most unloving ways". These words from psychologist Russel Barkley are particularly true for foster children, many of whom come from unsafe environments.

When we foster a kid from a difficult background, we show love to the child by providing him or her with the assurance of safety. Through regular routines and familial stability, we convey the message that the family is a safe space, and this allows the child to grow and thrive in the way that was intended to be. 

The family environment provides a safe space for the foster kid to grow in a healthy and holistic manner. 

Lots of affirmation is needed for such a child, given the adverse circumstances of the past. The child needs to feel that he or she is accepted. Only then will the emotional defences come down; and this would then enable the child to receive healing from the wounds of the past.

A safe familial environment provides a secure base for the child to develop. Only then can there be emotional stability and identity formation.

Apart from the learned polite requests of "Daddy, may I have some water please," little K has also started to be equipped with emotional language; for instance using phrases such as "Mummy, I'm so sad," or "Mummy, I need a hug." 

It's only when children feel safe would they then have the courage to express their emotions. And we need to help them articulate these emotions in a healthy manner.

Fostering is about empowerment.

When we craft a safe space for the child to grow, and provide the child with the emotional vocabulary to express his or her desires, we empower the child to articulate these needs in a more loving manner; and this begins a positive loop of continued affirmation and constant empowerment.

We need to break the negative patterns expressed by children who have not experienced what love is all about. For only kids who have been shown what love is all about can speak the language of love, and express themselves in a positive manner.

When we foster, we are able to re-write the scripts that have been assigned to a young life. We are able to rub out parts of the pain and replace them with a sense of peace and a feeling of love. In many ways it's a re-wiring of faulty neural pathways and an overhaul of the emotional circuitry of the brain.

Yes, fostering is hard. But if we can persevere and provide the child with a love that he or she had not experienced before, we can change the trajectory of the young life. And that's why we do what we do.

As I tuck the little one into bed and switch off the lights each night, I say a prayer for him and repeat my usual nightly refrain, "Good night, K. Sleep tight!" And the young boy responds dutifully, "Good night, Daddy. Sleep tight."                                                                                                       

Fostering is a crazy journey. But as long as we're prepared to hang on and keep on track, things will somehow seem all right.

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