Too Scared to Learn – My daughter had to deal with her foster care fears before she could focus in school.

Too scared to learn artwork

Illustration by Kingslee Gourrick

My daughter had some very serious problems when she started first grade. Kindergarten wasn’t too smooth, either, so on the first day of school this year I was encouraging her, saying, “This year is a new year for you.” I had high hopes.

A Difficult First Day

I dressed my daughter in her uniform—yellow tights with a blue jumper and a long sleeved yellow shirt. But as we approached the school, my daughter started crying, holding onto a metal railing and refusing to go inside. “It’ll be OK,” I told her. “You look so beautiful.”

In the cafeteria where the noise was tremendous, quite a few children were crying, so I didn’t feel as bad that my baby was in tears. When I walked my daughter upstairs to her classroom, she did not let go of my hand. When she picked out a desk, she finally calmed down and I gave a last kiss goodbye.

‘I Will Behave’

But my daughter’s fears did not go away. She was having a major problem dealing with the other kids, and she kept crying and not respecting the teacher’s rules. I was embarrassed when I heard about her behavior.

The teacher began calling to say that my daughter was throwing herself on the floor, poking kids with her pencil and threatening kids with scissors. That was very scary.

My husband and I took everything fun out of my daughter’s room and made her write in her punishment book, “I will behave,” but it didn’t help. In about three weeks we had four conferences with the school counselor, principal, parent coordinator and teacher to discuss my daughter’s behavior.

I blamed myself because soon after my daughter was born, I relapsed. Because of my drug use, my daughter spent three years in foster care. But I also felt angry at my daughter. I felt she could do better.

She Needed Help

In our house, everyone felt full with anger and disappointment. My daughter was getting so angry sometimes that she would kick the wall, throw her toys everywhere, and tear things up. She would even tell me that she hated herself and she wished she were dead.

I decided to call a mental health hotline. They advised me to take her to the emergency room so she could get a psychiatric evaluation.

When my daughter and I got there, we were sent to the adult psychiatric ward. I felt nervous for our safety. Everybody was in pajamas and some of the men seemed drunk or were talking to themselves. When we sat down, they all stared at us, especially my daughter in her braids and pink jacket. Immediately, she started crying and said she wanted to go home.
“I’m sorry, but this is what we need to do because you need help. You need to see a doctor,” I told her.

Earning Stars and Rewards

Finally, we met with a psychiatrist and then with a very nice therapist. The therapist said it sounded like my daughter was having separation anxiety, probably because of her experience in foster care. The therapist told me that by focusing on the positive things my daughter did, instead of punishing her, we could help her feel better about herself and less fearful and angry.

The therapist gave me a chart where my daughter could earn stars for the positive things she does. At the end of the week, if she had enough stars, she could earn a reward.

‘Not a Baby Anymore’

The therapist also noticed me calling my daughter “Little Mama.” “Why are you doing that?” she asked.

“It’s just something I call her,” I said.

“No, Mom. You need to call her by her name,” she said. “She’s not little anymore, and she’s the child.”

She also told me that I need to let my daughter grow up in certain ways. I have to stop getting her dressed, tying her shoes and cleaning her room. Treating her like a baby allows her to act like a baby, she said, and that’s part of why she has tantrums.

Playing Catch Up

That advice made me feel sad. I know my daughter is a big girl, and I don’t want to hurt her development in any way. But I also fear that her growing up is coming too soon. I feel that I missed out on my daughter’s early years, so treating her like she is still small is a comfort for me. When I hug and kiss her, dress her and just wipe her tears away, I feel like I’m playing catch up.

Plus, my own growing up was so terrible that I want to protect my daughter and keep her by my side always. I was only 5 when my mom and dad left my brothers and me alone in the streets. In my adoptive home, I was abused and beaten. I never had a birthday party or a person who hugged me or loved me.

Even today I still wish I had a mother to love me and help me raise my daughter. I still wish I had my dad to hold on to me and protect me and let me know everything is going to be all right. I love holding my daughter’s hand as we walk, letting her know I will always be here. I truly feel empty from my childhood, and I don’t want her to feel empty or alone.

Making Progress

Now my daughter goes to therapy every week and talks about being in foster care, missing her brothers, her fears about school, and her progress.

We have a chart for the house, and at school the teacher also has a chart with stars so we can see her progress. Everyone at school is seeing how the therapy sessions and the charts are helping her.

In the house my little girl is doing so well. She now makes her bed and cleans her room. She usually respects Mom and Dad and does her homework with no attitude. In the morning, she dresses herself for school and ties her shoes. Every night she reads at bedtime with me. I am so proud of her and I always tell her that with hugs and kisses.

There are days when she doesn’t do what she’s supposed to. Some days I feel a constant guilt that she’s having problems. I think to myself, “If I didn’t use drugs and abandon her she would be different.”

But I am beginning to see that my daughter and I can still be close as she gains more independence, and I feel proud of how much we’ve accomplished together. My girl is growing up.

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