Coping Skills

We see it every day. Children who are sad, scared, and anxious act angry and destructive because they simply don’t know what else to do. They are experiencing a lot of intense emotions, and they aren’t quite sure how to handle them. They want to be helped, but they have never learned the right way to ask. All they know is that they’re scared. Kids who have born into traumatic situations don’t always have the emotional regulation and coping skills needed to make healthy choices in stressful and uncertain times. They are attempting to process adult sized issues with child sized brains. It’s really not a fair fight.

Infants in healthy environments quickly learn that crying is an effective way to get their needs met. When they are in an unhealthy environment, they learn that crying does not get their needs met, and could actually be harmful, so they stop crying. Once they are in a healthy environment, they relearn the effectiveness of crying. Sometimes, their needs are never fully met until they are toddlers or even school age children. This process often begins in foster homes after they are removed from their unfulfilling home. Once that begins to happen, they often revert to where their development was initially stunted. That means crying, or somehow being disruptive, when they have unmet needs. Over time kids (hopefully) learn better communication skills and ways to more effectively get what they need.

That’s why family teachers, foster parents, and parents in general have such an important job. Teaching social skills and coping mechanisms to kids doesn’t just help them to be successful at home and school. It gives them tools to use when they grow up and go out into a stressful world. Proverbs 22:6 says Train up a child in the way he should go, And when he is old he will not depart from it.  I just had a conversation with one of our boys about how sometimes we turn little issues into big issues because we’re trying to teach lessons about life that will help them when they grow up. Lessons that they probably should have learned already, but haven’t.

An incredibly effective way to teach these things to kids is through modeling. Kids are so often a mirror of what’s going on around them. If there’s arguing and yelling in their house, they are much more likely to argue and yell. If they’ve experienced sexual abuse, it’s much more likely that they will mirror that behavior with their peers. This is all they know, so they think it’s normal. They assume that’s how it’s supposed to be. That’s why the cycle of poverty and abuse is so strong. They don’t know any different. We get the chance to show our kids, maybe for the first time, how to interact respectfully with others and take care of themselves. As foster parents and family teachers our job isn’t just providing a home for children who need a safe place, it’s working to break the cycle of generational poverty and trauma that often leads to a child needing foster care.

Since I’m a non-confrontational person, I try to stay away from current event and political debates, but I have a hypothesis. What if rioting and unrest is the go-to for some people because as a child they were never taught coping skills to positively deal with negative emotions? Just like we see so often with our kids, these people are angry, anxious, fearful, and sad. Often rightly so. They want help and comfort, but they were never taught how to ask for help. So they act out. They respond with destructive behaviors, because they don’t know what else to do. They feel unheard and lost, so they make sure their voices can’t be ignored. I don’t have an answer for what’s happening now, but I believe that teaching social skills and coping mechanisms to kids can help future generations of adults better handle the inevitable hardships and negativity they will face.


An Attempt 

It’s been a while since I’ve written out my thoughts. Jonathon has done such a great job of putting his emotions on our blog, so I’ve let him 🙂  A lot has gone on the last several months that I’m still just processing. My silence has been on purpose. We’ve had a lot of new, raw trauma – first and secondhand.

One of our sweet boys had a major surgery. We’ve seen many leave our home and campus that we weren’t prepared for. Going through our own adoption license training. All of this causes me a continuous heartache and tension. I’m a person who needs closure. I need a definitive end to something. I know that the deep meaning of foster care is just the opposite of that. There’s no closure. Kids are always in transition. There are sudden changes. Nothing is predictable. The nature even of my own cottage is to assess kids and move them. This is where I wonder exactly what God was thinking, calling me to this job and this home. I live without closure. It has, no doubt, been a journey of sanctification and trust.

Right now I think God is just keeping me here, in the thoughts of trust and sanctification. Daily I sink into the fact that I’m not in control, that I can’t really change anything, that I don’t measure up, that I can try at this job, but I don’t make a difference. I get so angry and frustrated at the things that should be simple, but for some reason they can’t be. It drives me crazy to not have the final say about my kids most days. I’m in charge, but I’m not in control. There’s a difference, and it feels as wide as an ocean.

My upbringing and ‘Good Christian’ side tell me to combat this by trusting in God and giving it to Him because it’s Him who does it all. He makes me measure up. He prompts the change. He makes the difference. He is just.

But let’s please remember that I’m a feelings person. Please. I need the feelings! But the fact is, they aren’t there. Trusting in God with my children doesn’t feel great. So I have to get a grip. Even when every part of my flesh is pulling me to control as much as I can, Jesus died so that I could be free of that temptation and desire.

Oh how easily I forget that God also knows my kids. I am more and more protective of each child the longer I am a mother. I learn how to love each one in a unique way. I love doing that. I feel like I’m made to do that. I was made to do that. I deeply value the relationship I have with each of our kiddos, but there are a plethora of people who make more important decisions or have more opinions than me when it comes to each kid’s situation. Many days being the actual foster parents feels like the least heard or valued opinion within a sea of other voices. Now, I understand that we are all working together to keep the child safe, but it just hasn’t felt that way. I feel bitterness and frustration creeping in on me.

I have to breathe. I have to tell myself that God is in control. I have to be confident that He has guided our steps to this specific job, even on days that I want to quit. He reassures me that even in the chaos, miscommunication, and factors of a broken system, God knows my kids. He can protect them better than I can. I have found a way on Earth to connect and relate to them, but He knows what their every thought is! He created them.

So I live in limbo. I live without the closure, ever attempting to trust a wise, all-knowing God with my most treasured earthly possessions. Writing is out makes it seem so simple. Getting past myself brings the complication.


     Too often our kids, and foster kids in general, feel like they have no control. They (often rightly) feel like they have no voice, that they are just one part of a system that decides everything for them and doesn’t listen to what they want. Because of this, they look for any way to feel in control. We most commonly see this play out via defiance, running away, and occasionally violence, but there are a lot of things kids do to feel like they are in control of their lives. They are part of a broken system in which they have no choice. They want to be with their parents and family, but because of drugs, abuse, neglect, etc., that’s not possible. They want to at least be with their siblings, but instead they are put by themselves with foster parents who are commonly motivated by something other than the child’s best interest. It’s a no win situation, and it’s through no fault of the child that this is happening. I wish I knew a way to fix it, but unfortunately, it is what it is.
     Children need structure and discipline, but they also need control. If kids don’t have anything to control, they look for something to control. When they look for something to control, it rarely has a healthy outcome. They try to control what happens in their relationships with manipulation, shutting down, and pushing back. They try to control what happens to their body with drugs, sex, and food choices. They need to feel like their opinions matter, they need opportunities to choose what happens. But along with choices, they need consequences. One of the toughest things for us to teach is the concept that choices have consequences. I like to reference the Choose Your Own Adventure books when talking to the kids. They are a good visual and practical example of how choices affect outcomes. We preach to them that when they make good choices, good things happen, and when they make bad choices, bad things happen. Of course this isn’t always the case, but if our kids can understand that, it’s a strong base for us to build on. The Teaching Family Model does a great job of helping us teach this to our kids. If they make good choices, they earn positive points and can earn extra privileges, and if they make bad choices, they lose points and lose privileges. This even works for our little ones who are too young for the system. If they make good choices at daycare, preschool, and around the cottage, they can watch movies and play on the computer. If they don’t, they do timeouts and miss out on dessert.
     Currently our cottage is all elementary boys and younger. With the nicer weather meaning more outside playtime, I got out my copy of The Dangerous Book for Boys. It’s full of great projects and lessons for boys of all ages. This poem is in a part entitled “Seven poems every boy should know.” They’re all good, but this one struck me because of a conversation we often have with our boys. “Were you making a good choice or a bad choice?” Usually when we have to ask this, it’s because they made a bad choice. We are certainly quick to praise them when they make good choices, but we ultimately want them to get to point where they can recognize their own behavior and correct it as needed. We know that this probably won’t happen while they’re in our cottage, or even while they’re at Thornwell, but I keep going back to advice I was given during pre-service training. Think about a rocket aimed at the moon. If you alter the trajectory of the rocket by 1 or 2 degrees, it will miss it’s target by hundreds of miles. If you can make the smallest changes in the life of a child, that can result in big changes down the road. “Can” doesn’t always mean “will”, and there are times where a kid won’t change during his/her time at Thornwell. We’ve only been doing this for 7 months, and there have been a few kids like that. They are who they are, and nothing we do will change that. But for the majority of kids that have come through our cottage, even in the short time we have them, we see a change for the better. We hope and pray that those changes stick once they leave.
Out of the night that covers me,
      Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
      For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance

      I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
      My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears

      Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
      Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,

      How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
 I am the captain of my soul.
[William Ernest Henley]