It’s all About Stress, Baby

(Originally published Nov. 6, 2015)

At times, being a foster parent can be very stressful. People constantly tell us that what we are doing is great/needed/admirable/etc., and to be sure, the need is great and the children deserve the best they can receive. But to be real, there are times we’d like to change our minds and return to ‘normal’ life as we once knew it. After all, they were placed in our home with a different background and set of experiences than what we would have provided, and they respond to life in ways that are different than what we are used to.

Recently I have written several posts about our foster son but I haven’t written much about his half-sister, our foster daughter. She is two years old and has special needs. The birth mom (the shared parent) was using drugs during her pregnancy which resulted in a very early labor and delivery – 26 weeks gestation, to be specific. Thankfully Duke University Medical Center is in our area and they were able to save our daughter’s life. Sadly, however, she was born addicted to heroin and now has cerebral palsy and other delays.

Some of the other delays include extremely limited speech, cognitive developmental delays (though it is unknown how severe) and spastic muscle control (hence the CP diagnosis). As outgoing and friendly as her brother is, she is reserved and clingy. In fact, she has a particular issue with men and, after 5 months, still will avoid or hide from me half of the time. Oh, and she is one of the most stubborn children I have ever met. *

So, between our son’s trauma-related meltdowns and our daughter’s physical and development issues combined with her strong willed nature, there are times that we feel like having meltdowns of our own; especially when his meltdowns and her resistance are occurring simultaneously. To say it can be stressful is putting it mildly.

(**This is an excellent book which greatly helped me in my understanding of childhood trauma. It is well worth the time and effort to read.**)

What is stress? According to Webster’s, stress is “a physical, chemical, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension…” That’s a bland definition for such a powerful physical and psychological response.

What I am learning is that how I/we respond to stress will either promote healing and development or will, at the worst, re-traumatize our children. In other words, I have to control my stress rather than let my stress control me, which is far easier said than done. But I need to be honest: when I allow stress to change my behavior, I am really making excuses for my decision to act or speak inappropriately.

There is a whole body of literature on how to handle stress and I don’t wish to repeat it here. Some suggestions range from a glass of wine, to increasing the B vitamins, to meditating or praying, to listening to calm music or taking a hot bath. While all of these ideas are great and most likely beneficial to some extent, they do little to help me when my adrenalin is surging and the fight or flight impulse is starting to kick in.

Early in our foster situation (and at 5 months, I am still very new) I was not prepared for the level of stress I would experience. Therefore, I reacted in ways that may have added to or prolonged the stressful situation rather than promote peace and resolution. Losing my temper, elevating the volume of my voice or making my tone harsh does little to help, yet that is what I was doing.

Then I started to think of what this was like from our foster children’s perspective. I tried to imagine what it would feel like to move as many times as our son has, to be pulled from the only family I knew and placed with a group of strangers (his transitional home had two parents and four other children; hers was a single woman with another foster child) and then, a month later, to be placed in another home with more strangers. I still cannot completely wrap my mind around it.

I also began considering all that they were experiencing physically and emotionally. While I don’t know the full extent of their past, I know enough to guess how painful it must be. Therefore, when they are melting down or being obstinate, perhaps they are really processing their trauma/pain as well as anticipating more of what they have experienced their entire lives.

With that in mind, I have to ask myself: how can I help them rather than further wound them? Whether they know it or not, they have been placed with me and my family in order to help them toward wholeness and healing. Therefore, each incident is not a minor crisis but rather an opportunity to redirect and heal. Rather than get mired down in the details, I can remove myself mentally and keep the big picture in mind.

Keeping this in mind has helped reduce my stress as I seek to be the foster parent that these children deserve. Hopefully, the more I practice this way of thinking and acting, the lower my stress will become and ultimately, they will experience a measure of healing.

*Update: Now that she has been with us for over two years, she has decidedly become a “daddy’s girl”.