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What Foster and Adoptive Parenting Does to Your Body

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For six months out of 2017, Darren and I, Margie, had a total of six kids we were parenting who, between them, had multiple needs which required us to be in a stage of constant high alert. We were never able to fully relax when children were around, which was pretty much always. In December, two of them moved on to a different home, and we realized just what a toll those six months had taken on our body. For almost two weeks, we felt a constant desire to sleep. As we were able to let our guard down just slightly, our bodies let us know that they did not appreciate the beating they had taken over those six months.


What Happened to Us?!

Parenting is stressful, but parenting children who have experienced complex trauma, and who need high levels of supervision as a result, leads to parents being in a constant state of high alert. If this goes on for an extended period of time, the caregivers begin to have some of the same physical and emotional responses that have occurred in their children.

What are some physical and emotional issues seen in caregivers?

  • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or Secondary PTSD
    Foster children are nearly twice as likely to develop PTSD than active combat veterans. Caregivers can experience prolonged exposure to the traumas their children have endured, or experience several traumas themselves related to fostering or adopting, and begin to show symptoms of PTSD such as intrusive thoughts, negative thoughts and feelings, avoiding reminders of trauma, and symptoms of being on high alert.
  • Compassion Fatigue
    Caring for a child who has experienced trauma over a long period of time can be very heartbreaking and emotionally challenging. If you have started to lose compassion for your child’s history, you may be experiencing compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue symptoms include chronic physical and emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, feelings of inequity toward the therapeutic or caregiver relationship, irritability, feelings of self-contempt, difficulty sleeping, weight loss, headaches, and of course, decreased compassion.
  • Depression
    Caregivers can begin to feel hopeless and helpless about their child’s situation, healing, behavior, or growth.
  • Anxiety
    Parenting comes with an endless list of things to worry over, and fostering or adopting can add more weight or items to that list.
  • Irritability
    Ongoing stress, continuous sensory input (nonsense chatter, constant loud noise, etc.) coming from a traumatized child, constant battles with health, education, or government systems to advocate for a child, and so much more start to wear on foster and adoptive parents leaving them irritable, overly emotional, or short-tempered.
  • Health problems
    Higher, sustained levels of stress lower the body’s immune system, resulting in more frequent illness. It can cause weight gain, heart disease, body aches, fatigue, nervousness, sleep disturbances, digestive problems, and other physical issues.
  • Withdrawal
    Withdrawal is common among caregivers. It could be due to a lack of energy, lack of time, or an inability to relate any longer to others in their social circles. Sometimes it’s because it is too difficult to go anywhere with children who are triggered by situations outside of the home environment. Caregivers at times will withdraw themselves emotionally in their home as well due to a lack of reciprocity from the child, and they begin to feel more like they are just fulfilling job duties instead of being a nurturing parent figure.
  • Isolation
    While withdrawal is often a choice of an individual, isolation results from those around someone removing themselves from the individual’s life. It may be that friends with children begin to stay away as fears creep in that being around your child will negatively impact their children. Maybe folks stop hanging around because there is sometimes a lot of drama involved with fostering and adopting. Yet others begin to question caregivers because they don’t see the same behaviors that the parents see at home, and out of lack of knowledge about trauma and attachment, they begin to suspect the caregivers are the problem.
  • Hypervigilance
    Do you seem to constantly be at a heightened state of alert? Do you jump at every sound and run to investigate? Does any movement out of the corner of your eye cause you to twirl around to check for safety? This is all very common in traumatized children, but caregivers often start to respond the same way, even when the children aren’t around.

Many of these conditions overlap, some are symptoms of others, and they are all on a spectrum from mild to severe. Will all foster and adoptive parents develop these symptoms? No, but many will have some degree of some of the aforementioned physical and emotional responses. It depends greatly on the needs of the children in a home, the intensity of the needs, and the number and ages of the children.

What reduces these impacts?

When caregivers experience these negative impacts on their well-being, their parenting and relationships with children and others are adversely affected. What can caregivers do to minimize negative effects on their physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing?

  1. Seek therapeutic help.
    Caregivers of children who have experienced trauma often find that traumas they experienced and thought they had dealt with are triggered by their interactions with their children. Finding a therapist who is well-versed in trauma can be helpful in processing past trauma in order to find healing and be available to parent better. Other times it is necessary to find a therapist to help talk through difficulties in parenting a child and gain insight into the child’s behavior and how to parent more effectively.
  2. Find support groups locally or online or find an experienced mentor to walk alongside you on your journey of parenting.
    While talking to friends and family can sometimes be encouraging, finding others who are experiencing similar triumphs and challenges through fostering or adopting provides the validation and information needed for success.
  3. Develop a stronger support system.
    Think about areas in your life in which you could use help in order to free up your mind, time, and energy for caring for your children. Is there a volunteer (or paid if budget allows) tutor who could take the added pressure of helping your child academically off your shoulders so you can focus on relationships? Is there someone who can pitch in with carpooling? Can a friend help you prepare food in bulk and freeze it for easy dinners? Many churches and communities are developing ‘wrap-around services’ where they find and train folks to do these types of things for foster and adoptive families. Each family has a team around them, and each team member is responsible for a different area of the family’s life (childcare, food, housework, encouragement or prayer, carpooling, etc.) Reach out if you need help!
  4. Practice self-care.
    I have yet to find a caregiver who has nailed this well consistently. It helps to be creative. It’s not always chocolate, wine, or a bubble bath. What “fills your cup” so to speak and energizes and revitalizes you? The tendency for caregivers is to neglect themselves to the point that nothing fills them up any longer, and they become less and less effective or therapeutic in their parenting, resulting in a damaged, resentful relationship with the child(ren).
  5. Celebrate and recognize small victories and changes with your child to combat depression, anxiety, and other negative emotions.

Often caregivers wait until they have reached their limit before seeking help or taking a new course of action. Being proactive at the first signs of trouble will help reduce chances of consequences like placement disruption or other major impacts to the family’s wellbeing.

We are here for you! Join other parents in the trenches during our [Monday Caregiver CheckIn] live each week on Facebook at 8pm EST!

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Now It’s Your Turn:

Think about these questions and possibly discuss them with a co-caregiver, trusted friend, or a professional, OR begin a discussion here with other caregivers.

  1. Have you experienced any of the negative impacts listed above through foster or adoptive parenting?
  2. Is there any negative impacts we failed to mention?
  3. What have you found helpful in reducing negative effects on your wellbeing?
  4. What steps can you take increase your wellbeing and your relationship with your child?

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Creative Therapies for Complex Trauma – Book Review

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From the Cover of Creative Therapies for Complex Trauma: Helping Children and Families in Foster Care, Kinship Care or Adoption edited by Anthea Hendry and Joy Hasler:

“A burgeoning evidence base supports that arts, play and other creative therapies have potential to help children in care to recover from complex trauma. Written by contributors working at the cutting edge of delivering effective therapeutic interventions, this innovative book describes models for working with children in foster care, kinship care or adoption and presents a range of creative therapeutic approaches spanning art psychotherapy, music therapy and dance therapy.”


Grade:
For Families

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Transfiguring Adoption awarded this book 4 Hoots out of 5 based on how useful it will be for a foster/adoptive family. [Learn more about our Hoot grading system here]

For Professionals

5 hoots out of 5

Transfiguring Adoption awarded this book 5 Hoots out of 5 based on how useful it will be for a professionals interacting with or treating foster or adopted children.


What Our Family Thought:

The target audience appears to be therapists, school personnel, and other professionals seeking to help children recover from complex trauma. Edited by professionals in the United Kingdom, this book focuses on therapeutic interventions in the UK but touches on their counterparts used in the United States. As someone who has a degree in psychology, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and its case vignettes. It gives background to theoretical developments in complex trauma and attachment as well the creative therapies used in treatment, their histories, effectiveness, and evidence base. It highlights the need for interdisciplinary interventions and teams of all involved adults working together to help children. This is an academic book which assumes at least some working knowledge in attachment, trauma, psychopathology, and psychotherapy.

We highly recommend this book to professionals in the field who interact with or treat foster or adopted children. This book would also be helpful to caregivers who are seeking to learn more about creative treatment options which may be available to their children.


Buy From Our Links and Support Transfiguring Adoption:


It’s Your Turn:

  1. Have your children taken part in therapies which were ineffective for them?
  2. What therapy would you like to try for your child?
  3. Has your child experienced success with any creative therapies? If so, what therapy was helpful?

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Adjusting Dreams with Kids with Special Needs: 4 Tips to Help Them

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This past spring we attended a high school graduation for the first time as parents of a graduate. During the ceremony, we were inundated with numbers. Ninety percent of the 470 graduates were entering college. They had been awarded $25,502,169 in scholarships. It was not as hard as I anticipated knowing that my child was not one of these students. College is not a good match for him. I know that. What was incredibly hard was watching graduates stand as their names were called along with the branch of the military they were entering. That was difficult. I cringed as I thought about unattained dreams. Our young man had dreamed of being a soldier as long as we had known him.


Unrealized Dreams

I can sympathize with unrealized dreams, as can most people who have lived a few years. My childhood dream was to be accepted to and attend Northwestern University, which was at the time ranked as 14th in the nation and was one of the very top schools in speech pathology, which I intended to major in. My childhood was not without major obstacles and struggles. I fought with fierce determination to succeed at what I put my mind to. I worked for what I got, but so much came naturally. I was not limited by a disability. While so much was unknown to me, I knew enough. I applied to Northwestern and was accepted, but after much deliberation, I chose to attend the state school offering me a scholarship as opposed to graduating with tons of debt. Looking back I know, had I gone to Northwestern, I would not have met Darren. Chances are that this crazy, dysfunctional family and Community Kids and Transfiguring Adoption would not have all come about. I still have that acceptance letter. In high school, I was voted most skilled in business, most likely to succeed, and most likely to be in politics (really???). I remain proud of my accomplishments, but that person seems far away. My dreams had to be adjusted.


Adjusting Dreams and Expectations

I talk often about adjusted dreams and expectations. I join with parents all over who secretly hurt for their kids, who feel twinges when their kids are not being recognized for how amazing they are at awards ceremonies or graduations. How I wanted to scream to the rooftop of that huge, packed out college basketball stadium about the wonders that our boy has achieved, living through horrors and overcoming obstacles those other grads could never imagine.

My life does not look like what I thought it would when I received those high school awards. Does that make me unsuccessful? Are my new dreams any less valuable? My child’s life does not look like what he had hoped. Does that make him unsuccessful? Six months post graduation, we are still struggling with our young man to figure out the next steps. We don’t know what our kids’ futures hold. We don’t know what our futures or the future of Transfiguring Adoption holds. We don’t yet have hindsight. When living as a foster or adoptive family, our dreams and expectations quite often go unmet and have to change, sometimes drastically. Our life looks SO different than what we dreamed or expected. We have had to grieve those dreams and build new ones.


But When It’s Our Kids…

It’s one thing as adults to readjust our dreams and expectations. We have more hindsight, and we have more life experience. We know there are many more types of opportunities for success. While, in the moment, it can be hard for us to access all this, our kids really do not have much in the way of life experience with other possibilities. How can we help them?

  1. Kindly offer reality.
    One thing that we have battled is people in positions of authority who are supposed to be helping kids set and reach goals telling them they can be anything they want. We can’t put a blind person in the pilot’s seat and have them fly a passenger jet. I’m sorry, but the child who is tone deaf is not going to be a famous singer, and the young adult who cannot read, is going to have limited choices. Sometimes we have to help our children ascertain between reachable dreams and those that are unattainable. To allow them to continue expecting something unrealistic is setting them up for a much greater pain and loss. For example, we helped our guy take a practice military entrance test. When we saw the results, we shared with the school and encouraged them to help us in helping him instead of continuing to focus on the military as a goal and setting him up for heartache and failure without a backup plan. They ultimately repeated the test at school and shared with him that no amount of hard work, through no fault of his, would fill the gaps.
  2. Acknowledge their pain and help them grieve.
    Do not just brush the child’s dreams aside. Let them know that it is painful to let go of dreams, allow them to grieve, and help them understand how to grieve that loss.
  3. Share your experiences.
    We have to be careful to not undermine our children’s struggles, but we can express that while our experience is quite different, we have had to face crushed dreams, share what they were, how we handled it, and positive outcomes.
  4. Show them other possibilities.
    Help your child explore other options. Is there something related to their interest that they are capable of attaining? What are other options that they may not be aware of? Help them explore.

Now It’s Your Turn:

  1. Is there anything you would add to this list?
  2. What have you done to help yourself or others to manage the loss of unrealized dreams?

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