Children who have been in care have great difficulty bonding. This is not a simple task where Daddy Warbucks swoops down and rescues little orphan Annie. Then, he is met with great affection and gratitude. Subsequently, everyone lives happily ever after. These are children who have truly been damaged by the snares of life, the foster care system, and other people who are equally scarred. A wise man by the name of Mike Walton once told me, that it will take one year in a stable, permanent home for every year a child was in “the system” to see genuine, lasting recovery. Do not be naive. This is not the rosy picture painted by a public service announcement with promises of changing the world or a brightly colored pamphlet plastered with children whose painted on smiling faces are dreaming of a “forever family.” Often these kids are hurt and angry. Being as you are the most approachable and constant adult in their life, I can almost guarantee where that anger will be directed. It certainly won’t be toward their biological family. Perhaps some anger might deflect toward their caseworker or “the system” in general but typically you are the primary target. Be prepared. Be patient. Be consistent. Be constant. This will not be easy.
When you find emotions elevating, do one of three things. Remove the child from the situation. Remove yourself from the situation. Remove the benefit from the situation. This is a general idea addressed in Dr. John Townsend’s book Boundaries with Teenagers. Essentially the idea is this, when approaching a power struggle, heightened emotions, or any other potentially dangerous waters, have the foresight to leave the situation as needed (go to another part of the house, work on something different, et cetera), send the child someplace different (a different room) or remove the benefit (the audience for temper tantrums, the toy, the game). Do not feel the need to address every misbehavior at that moment. A simple, “This was not a good choice. There will be a consequence.” is adequate. The potential damage to bonding from losing your temper far exceeds any benefit of an immediate consequence. The consequence should be the punishment, not your anger, elevated voice or emotional distance. It is extremely important that you maintain the relationship while rejecting the behavior. It is the behavior that in not acceptable – not the child. This sounds logical enough but can be extremely difficult. It brings to mind a time when I momentarily left the family room. At which point, my youngest took the opportunity to turn off the ceiling fan – by leaping from our recliner and swinging from the small chain attached to the fan. Talk about difficulty maintaining emotional neutrality. This brings me to my next point. Do not go this alone.
Pray constantly. Never forget that God can do more than we could ever ask or think. Our hope is in the Lord. He is our comfort and our strength, our rock and our salvation, our sword and our shield. He is our protector and our provider and it is in Him that we find our strength. This is a supernatural battle and I guarantee you need a supernatural ally. Do not think for a moment that your own strength is enough for the battle that lies ahead.
Develop a strong support group. Be intentional, this will not come naturally. Kids in care often have counselors, caseworkers, psychologists and psychiatrists. Please don’t make the mistake that I did for so many years and believe that this is enough. Don’t tell yourself that you “don’t have time” for friends, support groups, your own counselor, pastor, et cetera. It is imperative that you have a trusted “safe” support group that you can turn to when you fail, you’re at you wit’s end, you’re certain that you are the worst parent in the world, when you lose your temper and when you lose your mind. Call me cynical, but I think very few foster parents have the kind of relationship with their child’s caseworker or counselor that they would be comfortable enough sharing these frustrations and shortcomings. You need your own network of close friends, counselor, and so on. There must be people you trust who will both hold you accountable and build you up. Great information on identifying this group can be found in Dr. Henry Cloud’s book Safe People. With a master’s degree in theology and a doctorate in clinical psychology, he does a beautiful job of integrating the underlying message of the Bible, that we were designed to be in relationship with God and with others, with recent findings in the field of neuroscience indicating that the greatest potential for healing occurs when the elements of grace (unconditional love) is coupled with truth (accountability) in a meaningful relationship. This is explained in much greater detail in the book Changes that Heal, also by Dr. Henry Cloud and Hiding from Love by Dr. John Townsend. I would highly recommend all foster/adoptive parents read all three of these books as they will help with not only the children we serve, but with our own struggles and shortcomings as well.
This integration of grace and truth does not end with our needs. As parents we must take this information and apply it to our relationships with our children. Bonding, though a significant challenge, is paramount to progress. Without adequate attachments, children lack the safety to be honest enough about themselves to acknowledge their weaknesses much less address them. This would be far too painful a process with the ever-present fear of rejection. The Bible states this beautifully in James 5:16, “Confess your sins to one another that you might be healed.” If we confess, we acknowledge to another person those areas where we are most vulnerable. To do this, we must be certain of their unconditional love and acceptance (grace), not of our behaviors but of us as an individual. Equally important is the element of truth or accountability. We must be able to pour truth into our children's lives as Paul spoke of in 1 Corinthians when he stated, “Dear Children, not everything is good for us.” It is no more loving to accept inappropriate behaviors than it is to emotionally reject the child with the behavior – both are damaging. In this framework of grace and truth / acceptance and accountability we are able to grow and to pour into our children's lives those elements necessary for their growth and healing.
There is one final ingredient that Cloud and Townsend speak of and that is time. This is the same element that after years of working with troubled youth at Boys Ranch, Mike Walton stressed so adamantly. These children need time. Just as too aggressive of treatment to treat a wound could cause further damage, too aggressive an approach to “heal” a child can do the same. We must be patient. For unto all things there is a season (Ecclesiastes 3). Allow time for healing to occur, but be deliberate in the resources and relationships you employ for this process. Time in and of itself will heal no wounds. It is only time that is well-spent, in loving and truth-filled relationships, time that includes an adequate understanding of the underlying causes of the behaviors we encounter, which brings healing.
We must never forget the behaviors we frequently observe are merely symptoms of an underlying cause. Treating the symptoms is an artificial salve that serves to merely medicate but not eliminate the problem. For example, a child that has difficulty bonding will often display destructive and defiant behaviors as a means to “push away” their caregiver thus eliminating the possibility of them being rejected. By taking on a more aggressive role they seek to control what they deem is an already an inevitable response by their primary caregiver. While it is imperative that parents establish clear boundaries, both within their own lives and in their parenting, a system of boundaries and consequences within themselves will not address the core issue of “failure to bond.” Another more disparaging example is that of a youth who struggles with pornography, promiscuity, homosexuality, bi-sexual and trans-gender issues. These and other examples of sexually acting out or addiction stem from a far more troubling and deeper hurt within themselves. Common to foster/adoptive youth is the experience of sexual abuse and early exposure to sexual and/or pornographic language and images. This permanently impacts a child's mind and development. While it is true that God can heal all things, we must not underestimate the power of sin and the internal damage that it causes for generations. This will be further addressed in the chapter titled Sexual Abuse: Sexually Acting Out.
At present, the individual symptoms are not as critical as the understanding of the context in which healing occurs. Create in your home an environment filled with opportunities for relationships that provide the elements of both grace and truth. Integrate this concept in both your parenting and personal relationships. Use time as a catalyst that holds within it a the safety net where a child may risk honesty without fear of rejection. Remember time is only valuable when it is put to good use. Spend it wisely. Seek to provide opportunities for both growth and healing within nurturing relationships. Purpose your energy but do not pressure a response. In all things there is a season. Accept your present reality while planting the seeds you hope to reap in the future.