Capturing the Past…

As a child, I moved around A LOT. My dad was in the Army and for the first fifteen years of my life we were at the mercy of wherever the military decided we needed to go. Every time we moved, a moving company would come in and pack up all of our possessions and take them to the next destination. It was always a cool day when the moving truck arrived at our new place and we were able to unload all of our stuff. My childhood was filled with He-Man action figures, GI Joe’s, race cars, Ninja Turtles, Lego’s and Micro Machines! At least, those were the go to items I enjoyed playing with the most. It was like Christmas morning each move-in day!

Today, I can still drive to my parents’ house in Yukon, OK, walk into their garage, climb up the rickety latter leading into the attic and pull out box after dusty box while unpacking my childhood. It’s still there, I still have the opportunity to relive my past and bring it into the present. In fact, recently my parents brought a couple of boxes to Amarillo for me to go through. We found every note Staci wrote me in high school tucked away in those boxes. I’m sure one day our children will love reading through those!

Such great memories. But, what if I couldn’t touch, feel, and connect with my past in tangible ways? What if the moving truck never showed up at our new place and I had to start all over, again? What if I couldn’t go look through all the yearbooks from my childhood that still line the bottom row of my book shelf? What if my childhood was just a fragment of memories without any real item to connect the past to the present?

Unfortunately, that is the reality for thousands of foster children every single day. In our home, one of our foster kiddos neatly tucks away new gifts and special items into her suitcase my parents gave her this past Christmas, hoping to hold onto each item. Another of our foster kiddos takes his yearbook from last year, everywhere! At this point, I know his elementary school staff probably better than any other parent, because he constantly quizzes my wife and I on names and faces as he carefully looks through the yearbook over and over and over again. Our other foster kiddo tucks all of her prized possessions away in her special drawer, so that they don’t get lost or damaged. In fact, our three older foster children all have ‘special drawers’ in their rooms. They want to keep everything and I mean everything! But, it makes sense right? What would you do if you were 6, 8, or 10 and the only items you had from your childhood were the items you had gathered since entering foster care? Wouldn’t you want to protect them, hoard them, and keep them safe? Wouldn’t you want to make sure you didn’t lose anything? Now, I’m not saying every item they own goes unfazed. They have lost and broken items in the past twelve months. But, understanding where they are at and where they come from definitely comes to light when you see your ten year old take his yearbook to bed with him. They just want to be kids and remember their childhood. They came into care with just the clothes on their backs. They’ve had a long line of moves in their short lives, but unlike myself, no moving truck showed up to pack up their stuff and then meet them at their next destination with everything they owned. They moved and left stuff behind.

As foster parents it is part of our role to help them rebuild their childhood, not just emotionally, but also through material items and memories. Here are a few ideas that we believe provide meaningful ways children in foster care can ‘capture’ a glimpse of their childhood.

Lifebook’s. These books are intended to be created to capture memories. Such as, report cards, school pictures, birthday pictures, letters, achievements, artwork, and so many more items. We have a close friend who makes 2 picture books for every child in her home. The books are a photo record of their time in her home, complete with cute sayings, milestones and tidbits about what was going on in each picture. She sends one book with the child and keeps one on her coffee table. In fact, if you were to show up at her house today, you would be able to flip through the pages of all the adorable kiddos she has had come through her home in the past few years.

Special Drawer. Encourage the child to have a special place in their room for all their ‘really special’ items, such as, letters from parents, special toys, or clothes. Give them ownership over their space and their room.

Family Pictures. Try to get a picture of the biological family, possibly at a weekly visit. Buy the child a frame or photo board for their room and help them hang up pictures of their biological family. Not only do you validate that child, but you also validate that their biological family is important to you too!

Menu planning. Allow them to help you plan the menu with things they loved eating with their biological family. Too often foster children have to ‘change’ to fit in to the foster home. That is stupid. We should change to fit into their lives as well. Create a ‘recipe book’ of the things they have liked at your house. For example, one of our foster daughters LOVES guacamole! Her brother has already told her she won’t get it at home, because their parents do not know how to make it. So, why not create a ‘recipe book’ for them to take all the recipes of the foods they loved back home?

Clothes shopping. Allow them to help you pick out their new clothes. Believe me, I HATE shopping, but don’t you remember how it felt when your parents took you shopping and let you buy new clothes. I felt like a million bucks in my new Nike’s back in the day!

What other ideas have you tried? What other ways have you helped a child in your home ‘capture’ the memories of their childhood while they were with you?

Parenting Individuality With a Touch of Trauma..

As we pulled up to the amusement park, we heard a sweet voice in the back seat say, “When do I put on my swimsuit?” My wife looked at me and then turned around and asked, “Do you not already have it on? Where is your swimsuit?” “No, it is at the hotel”, came the response, along with a very confused look.

The simple instruction to our five oldest children prior to getting dressed earlier that morning was, “kiddos, be sure to put your swimsuits on under your clothes.” This child heard the direction, but had failed to do so. So, what were we to do? Is this a life lesson moment? Perhaps a logical consequence of, “Well then, no swimming for you!”?

We headed down that path, but then, we stopped. My wife and I looked at each other and asked, “What was our role in reminding her?” It sounds simple, it really does. But, the deeper discussion we were having was not about swimsuits, but more so, about where our 6 year old was functioning due to the trauma she had experienced in her life.

We’ve been to the trainings and even read a few books, but for it to come to life, we had to own it, understand it, and respond properly to it.

What did we have to own? We had to own the fact that trauma almost always stunts development. So, while we were hearing our 6 year old say, “she forgot”, in reality, it was the 3-4 yr. old child in her speaking. This was in contrast to our own biological children. They’ve grown up with limited trauma, they have developed properly (whatever that really means) and have an understanding of our expectations and we have an understanding of their capabilities.

We both agreed that due to where she is at, we probably should have given her a reminder and followed up to make sure it was done. We even purchased her a swimsuit at the amusement park, so that she could enjoy the time with all the other children. If you know us, then you know this action is contrary to who we are as parents, but that is what foster care has done for us. It has taught us to be different, much better parents. It challenges us to get out of what we think is right and really invest in what is right for ‘this child’.

Here is what we know, trauma almost always stunts development. It messes up boundaries, it alters brain development, and it wrecks trust.

We also know, that when we parent with a clear understanding of ‘WHO’ each child is, we are able to be more effective, more caring, more attentive and the headaches that follow statements like, “no, it’s at the hotel…” begin to come less and less, because our expectations and understanding evolve to meet that specific child’s needs. The expectation of “you’re six, so you should act six” will lead to a lot of frustration for both the parent and the child. The action of, “I’m your parent and will meet you where you are.” will always be a game changer in dealing with children from backgrounds of abuse and trauma.

So, what are your thoughts? Have you seen how trauma has effected the development of a child and have you catered your parenting style around that?