The foster care system can provide loving, safe homes to vulnerable children. It has undoubtedly saved thousands of lives. The outcomes produced by this system, however, can be wide-ranging and complex.
There are few things in life more delicate than early childhood attachment. We innately seek safety. Our brains begin developing millions of integral connections almost immediately, and many of these are created based on our caretakers. When a child is moved from caretaker to caretaker — even if all of these are amazing, loving foster parents — it can create a series of attachment challenges with lifelong implications.
When you’re a parent of a child who spent significant time in the foster care system and moved between several foster homes, you may live with the outcomes of this on a daily basis. You love your child, and you want to do what is best for them. But, you may be at a loss for how to respond.
The challenges your child experienced are unique. This demands an equally unique response. While some parents may be able to fall back on natural instinct, you’ll likely need the support of research and professionals.
That’s why we’ve created this short guide to responding when your child misses their former foster family.
Why a Child Might Miss Their Foster Family
There are neurological, emotional and practical reasons a child may miss their former foster family.
Let’s start with the most simple: The foster family provided a wonderful season of life for them. There are many amazing foster parents, and your child may remember their time in one or more of their foster homes with great fondness. This is not a bad thing. In fact, it’s great.
Missing a family for this reason may be easier for your child to understand and for you to explain. There are also more complex reasons that may be confusing for everyone, even your child, to fully comprehend.
Did you know that more than 100 billion neural pathways form in a newborn’s brain in the first few months of life? These are significantly impacted by outside sources, such as a stable caregiver. When moving between multiple caregivers early in life disrupts this process, a child’s brain struggles to understand what is happening. In turn, they develop complicated attachments to each caregiver.
This could explain the moments that cause your child to miss their foster family in a way that even they cannot fully explain. It should also, hopefully, give you a basis for extreme empathy. We’re talking about a delicate and complex situation. A healthy response has to be full of love, grace and understanding.
How You Can Respond to Your Child Missing Their Foster Family
Now that you know a few reasons why they might miss their foster family, how can you respond to your child and meet their needs? Every situation deserves a unique response, and we have come up with several strategies we hope you will find useful.
1. Prepare Through Research and Study
If you have read this far, you’re already taking the first step. The worst way to approach this situation is flying blind. There are education materials and online courses you can take to learn more about the impacts of foster care and the complex brain chemistry of children who experience early-childhood attachment challenges.
2. See the Need, Meet the Need
How is your child expressing their feelings? Does it make you flustered or even angry? Kids aren’t always great at sharing what they feel in a gracious way. It can come across as whining, throwing a fit or being moody.
A healthy response to complex feelings expressed in less-than-ideal ways is looking past the emotions and seeing the deeper need. It may seem like your child is throwing a fit, but they’re actually a 6-year-old trying their best to express something very confusing. If you can take a breath, see the need and respond to the underlying issue instead of the behavior, you can begin to work toward true healing.
3. Help Your Child Express Their Emotions
There are practical steps you can take to help your child express and process their feelings as you see, and meet, their needs.
Breathing exercises are important in heated moments, because processing complex feelings becomes much more difficult when emotions are running high. Additionally, physical activity is a great way to work out frustrations.
If your child is in touch with their creative side, you could encourage them to draw their feelings. This is a common practice used in therapy that you may find very helpful. Older children could also write letters as a way of processing what they feel.
4. Practice Patience
You’re not going to resolve deep-seated attachment challenges in one conversation, one week or even one year. This is a process. When you’re a parent, you’ve made a commitment to be in it for the long haul.
Today might be a hard day. It might be a day with no progress at all. Some days are for putting out fires. If that’s all you can do at this time, that’s okay. Growth will come, but it will take time.
5. Be Proactive
Don’t wait to play defense. What can you do to create new memories and strengthen the relationship between yourself and your child?
There will still be frustrating outburst and moments of confusion in healthy relationships. You aren’t proactive to eliminate these difficulties completely. Rather, strengthening your relationship creates a safe space to work through the hard emotions together. You’re setting the foundation for those challenging times by taking full advantage of the good ones.
6. Seek Out Professional Guidance
Most of us can’t do this on our own. Are you still connected to your adoption caseworker? Do you have a local social worker with your child welfare service that you could speak with?
Family counselors, online research materials and more can be incredibly helpful as you work with your child to process their feelings. Seeking out professional help is a sign of wisdom, not weakness.
The complex emotions that come with missing a former foster family may be a real challenge for your family, but you can reach a place of health and security with your child.