Parenting children with mental health challenges is hard – and for those who have done this, you know the word “hard” is an understatement.
I am a foster parent. I was given all the training and tools my brain could absorb about development, trauma, how to build relationships, how to repair relationships, ways to manage difficult behavior, and tips for self-care. I love to learn, and I love putting new information into practice. I feel like I parent well. And yet on the toughest of days, there are times I wonder, “What are we doing? Are we even helping?” and, “What if nothing works?” It is the worst feeling to not know what to do when everything feels like it is ready to split at the seams.
A Chaotic Morning
I was trying to get myself and our foster youth out the door for the day. I took deep breaths while I computed how many minutes we would be late for his dentist appointment as he deliberately ate one cocoa puff at a time. When he was done, I asked him to put his shoes on at the door. He went downstairs and began playing with his toys. When prompted to come up to put his shoes on again, he got angry, began screaming, and sat on the floor in complete refusal.
If he were 5 years old, I would pick him up and help him get in the car. But he is 15 years old. And when he is angry, he is a 5-year-old in a 15-year-old’s body. It is ultimately up to him to make the right choice. He finally did choose to head out the door after I told him he could put his shoes on while we drove. I went in to grab my bags and when I came out, he had locked me out of the car. I asked him to unlock the car and he stared through the window at me, challenging me to see how I would react. As mad as I was inside, I could not let him see this. I found the spare keys, got in, and silently ruminated in my anger as I drove. I was so angry that this simple morning routine turned into a storm of chaos.
Vulnerability Under the Surface
When we got to the dentist, I said, “Time to get out of the car.” I was hopeful that this would be successful. He began to yell, “I don’t want to!” Mid-sentence, his voice broke and he began to cry. His tears snapped me out of my frustration. Opening his car door, I asked him what was really going on and through sobs, he said, “I just don’t know.” He slowly got out of the car and put his head on my shoulder and all I could do was hug him tight. He stood with his arms at his sides while I hugged him and eventually, I could feel his body relax. This teenager never gives hugs and will never ask for one, but we took another step forward in breaking down his protective walls and building relationship in this moment in the dentist parking lot. We decided to tackle this day one-thing-at-a-time and moved on to have an enjoyable day.
This experience does not reflect every foster care experience and is just one bad morning in a sea of good ones. Foster care is a beautiful yet broken thing. When things are hard, we must remember moments like this – the “why” behind what we do. We must remember why we chose to stand beside these young people through it all. We must lean on the stories and experiences that opened our hearts, pour care into these children, and remember to meet them where they are. We must do it like their lives depend on it, even if it is moving through one thing at a time. Each day is a new day!
This blog post was written by a Nexus-PATH Foster Parent.
Nexus Family Healing is a national nonprofit mental health organization that restores hope for thousands of children and families who come to us for outpatient/community mental health services, foster care and adoption, and residential treatment. For over 50 years, our network of agencies has used innovative, personalized approaches to heal trauma, break cycles of harm, and reshape futures. We believe every child is worth it — and every family matters. Learn more at nexusfamilyhealing.org.