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.

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Foster Care is a Family

That title might seem obvious. The point of foster care is to provide a family for a child who needs one. That is true, but entering the world of foster care means a family of foster care providers that you are now a part of. A family that knows what you’re going through and can give you advice and encouragement to navigate the troubled waters of foster care. Like most other things in life, foster care is much more doable if you have a supportive community around you.

It’s not completely fair to say that foster care is providing a family to a child who doesn’t have one. Most foster kids have families, albeit insufficient ones, and they love them. Regardless of what was done to them, children are loyal (sometimes illogically) to their parents and families. They are in a stable, safe place for the first time in their life and they kick and scream because they want to go home. It’s all they’ve ever known. In his book The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog, psychiatrist Bruce Perry says that people, children included, often prefer the certainty of misery to the misery of uncertainty. Foster care could be better described as filling in the gaps of what a family should be. Ideally, foster care should be a group effort between the foster family, birth family, caseworker, and court system to ensure the best possible outcome for the child’s future. Nobody can do it alone, each piece of the puzzle needs to rely on the other to do their part.

It takes a village to raise a child, but it also takes a village to be a successful foster family. The parents and families that invite children into their home are definitely an important piece, but equally important are the people that surround that family with love and help to make their difficult job a little easier. Preparing meals, babysitting, home maintenance, and prayer support are all important skills that will ultimately benefit the life of the child. Jason Johnson says “We’re not all called to do the same thing, but we’re all certainly capable of doing something.” Not everyone can be a foster parent, but everyone can help foster kids.

There are different kinds of spiritual gifts, but the same Spirit is the source of them all. There are different kinds of service, but we serve the same Lord. God works in different ways, but it is the same God who does the work in all of us. A spiritual gift is given to each of us so we can help each other. (1 Corinthians 12:4-7 NLT)

A spiritual gift is given to each of us so we can help each other. That means you have a spiritual gift and you should use it to help others. No excuses. If you think you have nothing to offer, you’re wrong. You have things that you’re good at and you enjoy doing. Find a way to use those hobbies and skills to help foster families. Spiritual gifts aren’t something that just pastors and ministry leaders have. You don’t have to take a test to figure out what your spiritual gifts are. You just have to think about what you already do, and how that can be adapted to help.

Family Matters. Karl Winslow said so. Earthly families matter, and so does the family of God. We’re called to live life together and encourage one another daily. Let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works. And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near. (Hebrews 10:24-25 NLT) So it’s not enough to just meet together and live life together, we need to get creative. We need to come up with new ways to encourage and motivate those around us to do good and make the world, foster care system included, a better place. 

Foster Care is Frustrating

Google tells me that frustrating means to cause someone to feel upset or annoyed, typically as a result of being unable to change or achieve something. Sounds like foster care! From the application process to the actual foster parenting to the reunification of children with their families, there are many points at which you feel upset or annoyed that you can’t change or achieve something. Happens all the time, sometimes for days at a time. It’s important at those points to remember the big picture when everything else is frustrating you. Remember that the God who has the whole world in his hands, including the foster care system. An important phrase to remember is from Zechariah 4:10: Do not despise these small beginnings, for the LORD rejoices to see the work begin. Every step forward is an important step.

The process of becoming a foster parent can be very frustrating. So many forms and requirements. So little communication. So much waiting and inefficiency. It’s easy to become discouraged. You have a lot of time to wait and overthink your calling and decisions. It’s easy to give up and say “maybe this isn’t for us.” But remember do not despise these small beginnings. Every form, every class, every inspection is one step closer to providing a home for a child who doesn’t have one. The LORD rejoices to see the work begin. God wants you to become a foster parent. God has a plan for you, and he has a plan for the child or children who will be placed in your home. He rejoices in every step, however small, that you take in faith and obedience to that plan.

Parenting is hard. Foster parenting is harder. I guess I can’t say that for sure, because my only parenting experience is foster parenting (8 kids at a time), but I’m sticking with it. Kids come in to foster care with a lot of behaviors, good and bad. Working with kids to unlearn negative behaviors and teach appropriate alternative behaviors can be very frustrating. They have been doing those things for a number of years without any negative consequence, so they don’t understand why they shouldn’t be doing them. No matter what you do to try and correct those behaviors, they don’t seem to get it. Sometimes you see some progress followed by significant regression. Super frustrating. They experience your consistent love and safety for weeks and months, but are still terrified to take a shower or go to bed because they’ve been so scarred by their pasts. It can make you wonder what you’re doing wrong. It can even make you start to resent the child, or wonder why you’re even trying. You get frustrated with yourself and with them until it starts to become unhealthy. (I’m not just writing, I’m confessing. This has happened to me) Do not despise these small beginnings, for the LORD rejoices to see the work begin. Look for any positives, and rejoice in them. Even if it’s a seemingly small beginning, do not despise it. Progress is progress. Potty training is a great example. If they can go pee in the potty, you celebrate like they won an olympic gold medal. If a child who refuses to try any new foods nibbles a carrot, let them have whatever they want for dessert. If a child sees and believes that you care about their progress, it will motivate for them to continue improving.

The end. Saying goodbye. One of the most frustrating parts of foster care is saying goodbye to a kid you know shouldn’t be leaving. The foster care system, at least in South Carolina, pushes for family reunification or kinship care even if that seems to be against what is best for the child.  That’s just my opinion. I’ve seen it enough times to start to become bitter. I hope for the best, but I expect the worst. Of course I have seen many more times that reunification or kinship care is the best thing for the child. But it only takes one kid who was placed with a relative only to come back into care because the relative preferred drugs to kids. Just one time will make you question the system. It’s frustrating, but it’s out of your control. Do not despise these small beginnings, for the LORD rejoices to see the work begin. That child might be going into a very uncertain situation, but have faith that you have begun the work in them, and the impact you made with be with them forever. One of my favorite examples of this is an old physics problem. If you shoot a rocket at the moon, changing the trajectory by just 1 degree will cause the rocket to miss it’s target by thousands of miles. Any affect you can have in the life of a child can result in big changes as they grow up. It’s not just you though. It’s not fair to that pressure on yourself. God has a plan for those kids, and he will keep working in them long after they’ve left you. If you don’t believe me, Philippians 1:6 tells us I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns.

Every part of foster care can be incredibly frustrating, but it’s so much more than that. It’s an incredible opportunity to change a life for the better. If you’re on the journey of foster care, whether you’re at the beginning, middle, or end do not lose heart. You’re not on the journey alone. You are surrounded by a community of foster carers who wants to help you succeed. You’re supported by an ever present God who can move mountains to help you. Earlier in Zechariah 4, we’re told that It is not by force nor by strength, but by my Spirit, says the LORD of Heaven’s Armies. Nothing, not even a mighty mountain, will stand in Zerubbabel’s way; it will become a level plain before him! (Zechariah 4:6-7a) Replace Zerubbabel’s name with yours (unless your name is Zerubbabel) and have faith that your work is not in vain. Foster Care is the right thing to do.

 

First Birthday!

Our little blog is turning 1! Heidi made the first post one year ago and we could not be happier with the response we have gotten from friends, family, and colleagues. A lot has happened in this past year, and blogging has helped us share our joy, our struggles, our challenges, and our ever changing family with you guys. “Shared joy is a double joy; shared sorrow is half a sorrow.” (Swedish Proverb) It has helped us cope with losses and it has helped us become better foster parents. I have been able to think through a lot of things and figure stuff out while writing that I probably wouldn’t have figured out on my own.

Some fun facts about our first year: We published 26 blog posts (27 counting this one) that were read 2,869 times by 1,934 people. Our blog has been viewed by people in 14 countries. The most popular post has been Uncomfortable, followed closely by Loving When It Hurts. Since we started this blog we have had about 35 kids come through Bryan Mac. Heidi and I had the chance to attend a great orphan care conference that continues to stick with us and inspire new ideas and ventures. We’ve started the process of obtaining our foster care/adoption license, and have moved from an apartment into a house closer to campus.

To celebrate our first year, we’re changing up the look of the blog. New year, new look. New look, same great blog. Heidi and I are so glad that you have enjoyed hearing from us, and we are excited to see what will happen in the coming year. Feel free to let us know if there is anything about our lives or jobs that you’d like to read more about. We’d love to hear from you!

Family Teacher

Heidi and I started this blog so we could share our lives and our job with family and friends that we moved away from. This has allowed us to talk a lot about our thoughts and emotions while doing this job, as well as share some experiences and lessons we have learned during our time here. But I don’t think we have actually talked about our job, and why we are called family teachers. We mention being family teachers, or FT’s, in a lot of our posts but we haven’t explained what it actually is that we do with the kids in our care. Because of the high turnover in our house, we have to explain this to our kids pretty frequently.

There are 2 parts to being a family teacher, and they’re right in the name. Our job is to be a family as well as be a teacher. Most of the kids that come to our cottage have families somewhere out there. Most of our kids were taken suddenly from their families, so it’s understandable that they miss their parents, siblings, and whoever else was important in their life. Most of them no longer have the only family that they have known, so it’s our job to be their family, if only for a short time. What we tell the kids is that we know they have families and they have mom and dads already, but for whatever reason, they can’t be with them right now. So until they can be back with their families, we will be their substitute mom and dad, and Bryan Mac will be their substitute family.

We do our best to communicate this with words, but the concept of family is something that’s better to show than to say. We do our best to demonstrate to them what a family is, and what a family should be. If they are with us, they probably didn’t have a very strong family, and they probably have a distorted view of what a family should be. It’s tough for some kids, especially ones who were an only child, to adjust to life in a big new house with new authority figures and a bunch of other boys. But with consistent love, food, shelter, discipline, and laughter, relationships are formed, trust is built, and a house of unrelated boys becomes a family. One of the best compliments we’ve ever received by one of our supervisors was after an observation. They told us that our house full of foster boys (who had been all together for less than a month) didn’t feel like a house full of strangers, but of brothers.  A lot of times it’s amazing how fast that process happens. Kids are quick learners, and they understand what they need and can sense when someone really cares about them. When they recognize that they now have the physical, emotional, and spiritual support that they need, it’s easier to accept where they are and who they’re with.

Family is the obvious part of our job. We work at a children’s home with foster kids. Our job is to be a family for kids who don’t have families. Mostly true. Family is the easy part, but teacher is arguably the more important part of our job. Using the Teaching Family Model, we teach kids social skills that they need to be successful in their life after Thornwell. In the assessment cottage, we observe and assess where kids are at with certain social skill when they are first admitted to Thornwell. We start by looking at simple skills like following instructions, asking permission, and getting along with others. All of those can be broken down further or modified if need be, but we want kids to be able to master those simple skills before they move on to more specific skills, like taking initiative and personal hygiene.

Teaching social skills is complicated under normal circumstances, but when kids have to unlearn years of bad habits, it can be even more difficult. Kids have had to learn skills like stealing and lying in order to preserve their own safety at home. Some of our kids were left all by themselves, so they take what they want when they want it. When you’re 4 years old and have spent most of their time alone, you don’t know how to interact with other kids. We don’t just teach the importance of positive social skills, we teach why negative social skills are negative. A big part of our teaching interactions are rationales. We have to tell the child why a positive skill will help them, and how a negative skill can be harmful. One of the great parts of the Teaching Family Model is that it is very child centered. The Family Teachers get to know each kid and select target skills that they specifically need to work on. With older children, the goal is to get the kids to a point that they can recognize their own positive and negative behavior, and they can have a hand in choosing what skills they think they need to work on. All of the kids that are old enough for the model are tasked with choosing goals that they want to accomplish. We encourage a mix of long and short term goals. Some of the goals for our current kids range from throwing a football straight to attending college. Some are simple and silly, others are more substantial. These goals are what we use to teach skills. The FT’s come up with rationales to connect their target skills to the goals they want to achieve. This helps the kids learn because it helps them understand how the target skills specifically chosen for them can help them accomplish the goals that they set.

Our job is so much more than just parenting someone else’s kids, or getting paid to be stay at home parents. Heidi likes to say that our job is more like doing 3 full time jobs at the same time: parenting 8-10 kids, housework, and paperwork. Those tasks and more keep us pretty busy, but we love it. We feel that Family Teaching is perfect preparation for when we have our own kids, and we feel that our lives before this prepared us perfectly for Family Teaching.

-Mr. Jon

P.S. This song has been stuck in my head for a while, so I figured I would share it with y’all.

Never say no to your kids

Obviously you need to say no to your kids. Multiple times a day. “Can I have ice cream for breakfast?” “Is it ok if I get chocolate on the DVD player?” “Can I lick the dog?” No, no, and no. There are plenty of times when kids need to hear no. So my title is a lie. You should definitely say no to your kids. It helps them set healthy boundaries, lets them know what is right and wrong, healthy and unhealthy, appropriate and inappropriate. But maybe there are times when you should not say no to your kids. A better title probably would’ve been ‘Why you shouldn’t say no to your kids as often’, but that wouldn’t have been as dramatic. I was participating in a men’s bible study on marriage this spring, and I received some of the best parenting advice I’ve ever heard. The advice: “don’t say no to your kids.” Confused yet? Parenting is confusing. At least in my (limited) experience, it is.

What that advice means, is if your child asks you to do something with them, don’t say no. If a kid wants to spend time with you, you should always say yes to them. Kids know what they want, and they usually aren’t shy about expressing it. I’m hungry, I want to leave, I have to poop, etc. And usually when they ask, they mean it. So if they say that they want to spend time with you, they probably mean it. They truly want to spend time with you. We could talk about quality vs quantity time, but what I believe is, quality time happens within quantity time. You can try and plan quality time through special activities, but usually the quality moments happen during unplanned time together. Swinging on the swings, playing catch, going for a walk, even something as simple as eating a meal together can turn into the moments that kids remember most.

Jan and Mark Foreman, parents of 2 members of the band Switchfoot, recently wrote a book entitled Never say No: Raising Big Picture Kids. Admittedly, I’ve only read the introduction and a devotional consisting of short passages from the book. Either way, sofar it’s fantastic, and I plan on reading the whole thing. In the introduction, they share how they describe this concept to other curious parents.

“Never say no to all the dreams and creative ideas your children have. Never say no to the realization you can become different than your mom and dad. Especially never say no to your kids’ requests to join them, like playing dress up or going surfing with your teenager when the weather’s cold and windy. If you say no too often, they’ll stop asking.”

Another quote that I love from the book is “A thousand no’s can be dwarfed by the power of one yes.” It’s amazing to see the look on a child’s when we say yes to something that’s always been no. Some of our kids have never heard yes when they’ve asked a question. Whether it was from parents, relatives, or caseworkers, the answer has always been no. They’ve never had a chance to get what they want or to think creatively. They’ve been told what to eat, what to do, where to live, who to live with or simply given no attention at all. Whether it’s a second bowl of cereal at breakfast, or another blanket on their bed because they’re cold, a simple yes can work wonders in developing a relationship with a kid. Especially in our cottage, forming relationships is a difficult but vital part of our job. I’ve found that if you can make a kid laugh, it will be easier for them to trust you. When they trust you, they listen to you. Not to say all defiance is distrust, but for us that is often the case. To a certain extent, they need to know you’ll say yes to some things before they accept you saying no to another.

For me this is really easy to connect this concept to our relationship with our Heavenly Father, so I’m not going to spend a lot of time on this part. 2 Corinthians 1:19-20 says

For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was preached among you by us—by me [Paul] and Silas and Timothy—was not “Yes” and “No,” but in him it has always been “Yes.” For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ. And so through him the “Amen” is spoken by us to the glory of God.

He always has been and He always will be. He says many times that he wants to hear from us and He is always available for us. Of course sometimes He says no to us when we make requests, but whenever we want to spend time with Him, the answer is always yes.

I write this somewhat hypocritically. It sounds great and makes perfect sense, but this is something that I’m not good at. I’m trying, but it’s really hard to push 4 kids on the swings at the same time when it’s 90 degrees outside. I know I need to do better, and I have seen results when I say yes to our kids, however reluctant that yes is. But it’s still tough.

Parental Judgement: Raising Kids with Anxiety 

     Something I haven’t liked about parenting is the judgment of other parents. People have such deep rooted ideas about what a parent’s job is and how they should raise their kids. When one family does it differently than another, there’s a mostly silent, sometimes voiced opinion that lingers. I won’t make general statements about all parents because I’ve seen very wise moms and dads understand how unique kids need to be treated. But we all know them. The looks, the comments, the sighs as people see how we deal with our kids in a way they wouldn’t. 
     This is a pretty significant part of foster and adoptive parenting. It’s a tough part of opening your home to kids that didn’t begin their life with you. As a foster parent, you’re trying to get a grasp of your child’s needs and personality. Life at home is filled with questions about their likes and dislikes, gently asking about memories of their past, watching them react to a scary, difficult time of their lives. Going out in public can be a fairly nerve wracking thing when you have a new, unpredictable person with you. I feel pretty anxious when we bring a new child to school, specifically. It’s normally in the middle of the school year, and their life has just been completely disrupted. I’ve known them for about 24 hours. If the school calls with a problem, I have no idea how to help them. I have only slightly figured out the child’s temperament or reactions. But what good parent doesn’t know how to handle their kid?

     I didn’t realize just how many judgements I took on when I became a foster mom. I have an amazing support system at Thornwell, a fantastic husband, and quite a bit of self confidence that keep me up on my feet, regardless of others’ judgements. But some days it still hurts.

     Many times I’ve stood outside our van or sat in the front seat while a child screams and kicks during a timeout or cools down. I’ve gently coached and encouraged a kid to follow instructions in public with no success. I’ve asked a waiter for help when a child throws food or drink or even licks the salt shaker. I’ve explained underlying conditions that may have caused a disruption for teachers or receptionists. We even had a kid run into the kitchen of a local restaurant. I see these things as part of raising kids. Although it was a whole different time, I remember my mom spanking us in the grocery store when we wouldn’t listen. Kids cause a disturbance most of the time, especially in public. Yet, people say the craziest things. 

‘Ma’am, are you gonna handle your kid?’ 

‘You must not know how to take care of him’ 

‘What did you do that made him so mad?’ 

‘Wow, your kid is loud’ 

‘Just pick him up and deal with it’ 

The response I’d love to give: Shut. Up.

     I’ve felt guilty some days because I try to explain myself to ‘those’ people. ‘We just got him yesterday. He’s in foster care’, ‘He has anxiety and he’s having trouble today’, ‘I’m sorry we’re bothering you. He’s just struggling because he doesn’t know me yet. He’s our foster kid’ 

     But I don’t need to explain that to them. Sometimes it’s necessary, but most of the time I feel that no one needs to know my kids aren’t really my own. They aren’t defined by that. They aren’t a charity case or need pity. They need someone on their side. Someone who will stand and listen even when they’re throwing shoes or when they’re trying to run away. I feel successful when I can go to a conference and an appointment and not tell someone the child is in the foster care system. A key point of fostering, in my opinion, is that you bring them into your home and life and treat them as your own biological children. When your kids are connected by blood, you can’t run from their problems, although many parents do. The same goes in fostering. You can’t just give up on them when things get complicated. That’s what you signed up for – kids. You can’t give up. God doesn’t give up on us. That’s the beauty of being in the body of Christ. Well, it’s supposed to be anyway. Living life together no matter what. 

     Jonathon and I just got back from vacation in California, and we visited the San Diego Zoo. We encountered a few families that seemed exactly like mine – a boy on the autism spectrum who openly corrected strangers when they called it a crocodile instead of an alligator, a mother who tried to calm a child who clearly struggled with anxiety with no success, a family with very disruptive children. My mind instantly brought me to a precious little boy of ours who had a meltdown for 45 minutes in his Halloween costume during school. The school staff was phenomenal in letting me talk him down and handle it how he needed. Some parents weren’t so nice though. So at the zoo, I said a quick prayer for that mom who was working so hard to keep it all together. It’s hard to do that. I know. One of my favorite literary characters said it best:

 “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird

     I’m seeing that most parents are judged by others, even with ‘normal’ kids. I know that judgment on our parenting will only increase as we move towards adoption. As a foster parent, I could easily say ‘It’s not really my kid.’ (although I don’t!) But when we make a child permanently ours and they bite me in public or need inpatient therapy, it IS really our kid. My job as a parent and a mom is to fight for my kids – to stand up for them, to defend them, to treat them all with love and care no matter what their behavior, illness, or experience has been. And they don’t have to appreciate or recognize that. It’s a part of the Gospel that we often forget, God loves us unconditionally no matter what our relationship is with Him. So, when foster and adoptive kids can’t attach to our family because of their past, I will still be on their side. 

     Raising kids isn’t for the weak, and raising a child with anxiety all the more.