I opened my bedroom door, trembling. All down the hallway were shattered pieces of a mirror. In a fit of fear and blind rage, my son had taken anything he could find in his room and broken it. My husband and I had gone into our room until the breaking stopped; it was best to keep ourselves safe while repeatedly asking from the other side of our door:
“Are you okay?”
“What was that?”
“Are you keeping yourself safe?”
“Please stop. We are right here for you!”
(Note: During fits of blind rage, words rarely get through, and we knew that. But we felt bad not saying or doing anything like I’m sure most any parent would.)
Our son left the scene and went outside. Finding solace outdoors had been part of our care plan since he came into our home as a 12-year-old foster youth. During these anger episodes, he was permitted to go outside and go for a walk until he felt calmer.
I stood in the hallway and saw the shards of glass. The ceiling and walls and light reflected off each piece. I stepped back and fell to my knees as my adrenaline crashed. How would I help our son? What were we going to do to keep him safe, as well as his siblings? But I knew, as moms always do, these pieces were like his heart – broken, shattered, jagged, seemingly impossible to put back together.
I Didn't Always React This Way
When these episodes first started happening, I would feel protective of my home and my anger would rise with his. I would beg him to stop, I would try to stand in his way as he went from room to room, knocking things down and destroying anything in sight. We called the police once because he was about to destroy something in the neighbor’s yard and couldn’t be reasoned with. The officer found him walking a half-mile away and brought him home. I felt awful; I thought I had failed him. We are so blessed that the officer stayed for 30 minutes and poured kind, wise words into our son. He was so encouraging, so helpful, and it made a difference. We hadn’t failed, and our son saw how many people are on his side.
After a few of his “episodes,” I noticed something. Coming from his room after he de-escalated were soft whimpers. Sometimes those whimpers would turn into wails. One time I stood close to his door and heard him whisper through tears and soft sobs, “You always do this! You always mess it up! You screwed up!”
From that moment, I knew that being proactive would be paramount. I knew I must keep following my instinct to forgive quickly, love fully, and remind him who he really is. I also kept thinking of something I learned in a foster care training – that anger is simply a cloak over fear and sadness. It isn’t the primary emotion; there is actually a different emotion hiding behind angry behavior. So, when he was exhibiting anger, I would say to myself, “My son is sad. My son is scared.”
Changing My Mindset
I learned to pour into him all other hours of the day when he wasn’t escalated. I would remind him he’s such a good person. He is a good brother. He is smart, thoughtful, wise, insightful.
I also learned to ask better questions. Not, “Son, why are you mad?” but rather, “Son, I notice your demeanor has changed. Would you like to hit the punching bag or shoot hoops to let off some steam? Do you need a hug? Should I get you a glass of water?” Note: Buy a punching bag and/or basketball hoop for kiddos who struggle with rageful expressions!
In the last couple of years, it’s incredible to see the strides my son has made. It’s to his credit because he has made decisions about behavior, opened up about feelings, learned to trust again (still working on that), and is stepping into his potential on purpose and with authority. He lettered in football, he is in Honors English, has chosen good friends, and took control over his physical health.
I was crying while writing this and just texted him, “I love you. I’m so glad you’re my son. I notice all the good you’re doing, and I’m so proud.” He probably won’t text back, but I pray he knows I mean it. We’ve come so far as a family, and I can’t help but praise!
I understand it is difficult and sometimes dangerous to take in foster youth, especially teens, with explosive expressions of anger (fear, sadness). I understand how scary it is, too. I just pray that those who can foster will take the opportunity. If you can persevere, get support for your own feelings, and see it through, you just might get to be part of someone’s beautiful life story.
This blog article was contributed by Cherie Johnson, Foster/Adoptive Parent of 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 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.