A friend recently left me a desperate 10-minute voice message. She is a foster mom from another state whom I met in a Facebook support group. She is just a few steps away from signing adoption papers for her 13-year-old foster daughter. When I saw that the message was 10 minutes long, I knew it meant my friend and her daughter were having a difficult day; we had been through a few rough days together, and often reached out to one another to share the challenges and the joys.
The message went something like this: “Cherie, I completely lost my cool today. We were having such a good week! I even treated her to ice cream and we had incredible one-on-one time. Then the next day - today - she’s acting out again and displaying aggressive behavior. I yelled at her, and I’m not proud of that. Sometimes I think God selected the wrong person. Sometimes I fall asleep hoping I don’t wake up the next morning because I’m too weak for this.”
Feeling Like A Failure
I have been in that exact state of mind, wondering if I even had what it takes to continue another hour. It’s an emotion that likes to hold hands with shame and goes something like: I can’t do this… what’s wrong with me? I feel weak… and my (foster) child deserves better. I feel like giving up… I’m such a failure.
I’m reminded of a time with one of my former foster children. We were having some good days at home after a long season of full-blown post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms that left us all exhausted. I was feeling encouraged by the multiple easy, happy days at home. Then I got a call from school that some “obscene behaviors” were occurring, and I needed to be on-call if her behaviors became unmanageable for a school setting. (Note: Some observed these symptoms as “bad behaviors,” but we knew enough about her history to know even the “naughty” stuff was part of her coping with severe trauma. It did not mean it wasn’t exhausting or frustrating – it was.) In a weird way, though my foster daughter was only in elementary school, I almost felt betrayed. Was she faking the good stuff? Was there another side to her about which I had no idea? Was I rewarding good behavior at home, unknowingly rewarding the “bad” behavior happening at school? Will anything every be easy?!
I want to remind all of us that healing is not linear. That’s why it can feel so disheartening. We fill up with sunshine when we see victory in our children’s lives, and the moment we start to let our shoulders drop in relaxation, another storm comes seemingly out of nowhere. We must throw on our gear and fight through another torrent, and we can feel oh-so-weak.
But that does not mean healing isn’t happening. It means that it is layered and multifaceted and complex. It means that trauma goes deep, and so must healing. It takes time. It takes learning, asking a lot of questions, and getting sincerely curious about how our kids process the world around them. And so, we must be patient, resilient, and even gritty.
The Healing Journey
If you’ve never read the book The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D., I highly encourage you to do so. In it, the author reminds us:
“People can learn to control and change their behavior, but only if they feel safe enough to experiment with new solutions. The body keeps the score; if trauma is encoded in heartbreaking and gut-wrenching sensations, then our first priority is to help people move out of fight-or-flight states, reorganize their perception of danger, and manage relationships… As long as we feel safely held in the hearts and minds of the people who love us, we will climb mountains and cross deserts… Children and adults will do anything for people they trust and whose opinion they value.” (p. 351, 352)
Our greatest legacy will be love, and it will also be our greatest challenge. It is never easy to fully love and care for someone up close. It’s not easy for someone to do that for us, either, but it is always worth it. Promoting healing requires more than love. You don’t even have to start there. But walking this healing journey together will evoke a sense of purpose and resolve, even on the hardest days, and that, my fellow warriors, is certainly on the spectrum of love.
Be patient with healing. Don’t disregard the good days just because difficult ones emerge. Remember that it’s another opportunity for deeper healing. Behavior always has a root, and for foster and adoptive children, that root is often trauma. We should deal with behaviors and give appropriate consequences, so don’t feel like we must throw those out. Stay encouraged during the process because one day you’re going to clear a storm and realize it passed by more quickly this time, your child has won a victory, and you have facilitated a healing environment that helps your children grow into who they were meant to be.
Healing isn’t linear, but it is beautiful.
This blog post was written by Cherie Johnson, foster and adoptive parent at Nexus-Kindred.
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.