The Situation: It is so easy to become self-righteous or even just angry at bio-family because of their often stupid choices and end up saying something too close to little ears or even saying something to the little ears directly. It's understandable - as foster parents we see the impact of their choices. We see how the kids are hurt (and damaged) by missed visits, drug use, crazy parenting, and all the other stuff that leads kids to be in our homes in the first place. We love the kids and are hurt when they're hurt (hello compassion fatigue!). So many of us feel the need to talk about it with our spouses, other foster parents, friends, family, the grocery store clerk...OR...we love the kids day in day out. We're they're for them. We keep them safe and are constantly working on helping them heal and too our shock and dismay the little boogers will insist on talking about their birth families as saints - how much they love them, the dollar they got at their last visit, their parent's new home that may or may not exist - we want to tell the kids how lousy their parents really are.
Why it's a problem: If we're really in it for the best interest of the kids then this type of behavior serves no real purpose. It's not helpful for us to tell our kids how really bad their parents are in most circumstances. Pointing out to them how stupid their parent is for buying the new bathing suit 2 sizes too small despite having provided them the correct size only helps you vent, it doesn't help the kiddo feel any better about their situation nor does it help your bonding with the child (if that's your intent). Most children feel a connection to their first families and relate part of their identity to their family of origin (whether or not they have a relationship or the quality of that relationship). When we put their family down directly or indirectly we often inadvertantly chip away at their self-esteem in ways none of us fully understand at the time. Put it this way - if my parent was too stupid to buy a bathing suit in my size then maybe I'm stupid like they are OR maybe I'm not worth them spending the time to get the right size. I don't want my kids thinking like that. This type of behavior can be damaging even when talking where little ears can't hear. Friends/family/strangers may inadvertantly wonder if your child has inherited certain traits (maybe not stupidity but what about impulsiveness like the parents?) and begin responding to the child accordingly so that a self-fulfilling prophecy effect occurs. OR, friends/family/strangers say something directly to the children. OR, because of your negativity those friends/family/strangers who would have considered fostering themselves decided they're not up for the crazy when in reality that particular crazy is only a tiny part of the job. OR, friends/family/strangers decide they don't want to hang out with you because your talk is so negative and you lose that vital support. None of these options are particularly helpful for the children in your care or ultimately you as the caregiver. Finally, it's not helpful for the bio-families. Yes, I care about them too and so should you. Reunification with a healthy family is always the best option for the kids we love and we're only making it harder by gossiping about their imperfections. We would say we need to be encouraging to our friends who struggle with an imperfection - why not the families? Even when the reunification isn't the best option because the family cannot or will not be healthy for the children, when you adopt you want to be able to tell the child you did everything you could to help get them back with their first family. Can you honestly say that knowing you spent XX amount of time putting them down?
The solution: Speak the truth in love and take the opportunity to build your kids up. You don't need to lie and sugar coat the situation but there are ways to say things that are helpful.
- Explain the situation in age-appropriate terms: Let's say a parent misses a visit because they were high - You could tell the child "I'm sorry you didn't get to visit with mommy/daddy today. Mommy/Daddy was too sick today to keep you safe and healthy". Then, depending on age/maturity you could modify the underlined piece with one of the following: "...unable to make good choices today", "...still taking drugs/drinking too much alcohol today," or something similar based on the child's ability to understand the details of the situation.
- Show empathy: "It is so (sad, mad, confusing, hurtful, etc.)" when mommy and daddy miss a visit. Whenever possible, use feelings your kids have identified though you may need to help them figure out their big feeligns. It's ok to explain how it makes you feel too - I often tell my kids "It makes me sad and cry too". Don't just assume you know how the child feels though or focus entirely on your emotions. It's even ok to say "I know you were looking forward to visiting them" or "I hope you get to see them next week" as long as it is true, authentic, and child-centered.
- Encourage: "You deserve a mommy and daddy that will always keep you safe" or "You're so very important and we need to make sure you stay safe" are good options. In the encouragement try to focus on those pieces of self-identity that is damaged by the event like their self-esteem or image. If the parent sees them and comments negatively on their outfit, for example (and yes that does happen), you can say "You are so beautiful and it hurts when someone says something like that" or something similar.
- Act: Give the child something they can do about it - empower them in the right direction to help avoid turning their energy into something negative. In our family this often involves praying for their family but it could involve a variety of things as the situation warrants - write a journal entry, draw a beautiful picture of yourself/write an essay about all the beautiful things about you/play the "i'm beautiful because" game, volunteer to help those in similar situations as the parents - serve soup to the homeless, collect bars of soap for the local treatment center, etc. I'm coming up with random things here but in essence you want to find something age appropriate and situation appropriate to help them feel empowered over the situation. If you're planning on doing something more formal for volunteering or an activity that involves more intense emotions I'd recommend doing it conjunction with a trained therapist or licensed counselor to ensure they are supportive and aligned but there are almost always things you can do to help a child of any age feel empowered in a simple way.
- Counselors/Therapists - Sure - foster parents need them too! They can be a great resource when you're struggling to make sense of it all or need to vocalize the crazy in a confidential manner. "I'm angry because my foster kids' first families use drugs repeatedly and I think they're stupid" or "It frustrates me that my kids' first family finds the money to smoke crack and pay for those stupid rims on that car but they can't find a safe place to live or bring a decent lunch for their kids during the visits" are perfectly acceptable things to share with the counselor".
- Spouse - I'd generally say that conversations between spouses can and should be perfectly honest as well and it's important for spouses to feel like they can share those ugly feelings they have from time-to-time with each other. There are two main cautions. First - make sure there is no possible way for anyone else to hear. This might be a coffee date, a late-late night conversation when you know the kids are in bed or a break-time conversation when you're both at work but you don't want your kids (forever or foster) to hear a word of what you are saying if you're going to be negative about the first parents. Second - you want to watch how much of your conversations with your spouse are aimed at foster care at all, especially the negatives about foster care. You need to focus on your relationship, building it up and enjoying each other at least as much as you're tearing down other people, amen? You also want to be encouraging to your spouse so too much time for either of you "being honest" about foster relatives might not be helping you reach that goal.
- Friends/Family - You may have a friend or family that is close that you share more with and then the rules of speaking to your spouse likely apply here. For most family and friends though I'd recommend sharing information sparingly, as needed, and always with love and respect toward the first family. If you can't do that, don't share with them until you can. The more distant family and friends will tend to hear the negative over the positives of fostering and will have one of two reactions - they will want to avoid the drama and therefore avoid you or they will join in the drama/gossipping/emotion purging. The first response will harm your support system and likely cause more drama (why don't they want to hang with me anymore - wahhh!). The second will drag them down and likely drag you further into complaining and whining about the parents without helping encourage you or with benefits for the kids. These more distant folks will also be less likely to be discreet with the information you share because they're not as close to the system as you are so it's possible they make comments at some point while the kids or others you don't want to hear are around. Try and stay positive but honest with friends and family and keep the verbal purging to your counselor, spouse, or closest friend/family member.
- Foster Parent Support Groups - My gut wants to say these groups are fair game but you need to be careful here too. There is no one else who gets the situation more completely than other experienced foster parents and therefore it can be so therapeutic to share with these friends. They understand confidentiality and a good group understands that you love foster care (enough to do it!) even when you spend some time complaining about the crazy. They have their own crazy and sometimes it's nice to hear you're not the only one but at the end of the day you all love your kids and understand why you do what you do. The caution here is two-fold. First, you want this type of group to be encouraging so be careful to spend more time encouraging each other than gossiping about the crazy. Second, there are often new foster parents, prospective foster parents, or people who may not personally know you well in these groups and you don't want to lead them astray.
Do you have any techniques or suggestions to add?