Before my son entered foster care, I was working full time and going to school full time. I was known for multi-tasking. I never kept a calendar but I could make all appointments and never be late. I was on it. But once child welfare got involved in my life, things went sideways real fast.
After I lost my son, it was like I lost control over my body and mind. I couldn’t focus. I couldn’t get things done the way I used to. I could not keep track of anything anymore. I missed doctor’s appointments. I let my public assistance case close because I missed appointments. It felt like my brain was not working anymore.
A Racing Mind
Trying to stay calm was easier said than done. My anger would jump from 100 to 1,000 on a regular basis. I was always the type to have my guard up. I was in defense mode. But when my son went into foster care, I went from defense to attack. Everything felt like a threat to me.
If I got to an appointment late and the receptionist tried to reschedule, I’d flip out and threaten her. In the past I would’ve said, “OK, no problem.” My biggest trigger was when people would ask me where my son was. I would go on attack so I didn’t have to admit that he was in care.
I never could put words to what happened to me at that time in my life. Was it depression I was feeling? Was I forgetful just because I had so many thoughts racing through my mind? Did my worry consume me?
All I knew was that it was too much for me to handle, and my “act now, think later” reactions did not help my son come home. No one at the agency understood what was wrong with me, or what I’d been like before. They assumed that I was always an angry, violent person, and that itself kept my son in care for longer.
Learning about “Toxic Stress”
This time in my life came back to me when I read a new paper from the Harvard Center on the Developing Child about “toxic stress.” Research shows that serious stress can make it hard to think, plan and calm down. Overwhelming stress can also affect how parents interact and engage with their children.
Everybody experiences stress. Experiencing some stress is good—challenges help us learn and grow, and even serious stress is tolerable. Under normal conditions, our system will settle down when the stressful situation is over. That’s healthy.
Toxic stress really means “prolonged, extreme activation of the stress response system.” When we encounter things that challenge us, our bodies have stress reactions—our blood pressure rises, our hearts beat faster, and hormones are released that prepare our bodies and brains to respond quickly.
When people stay in this highly agitated state for a long period of time, that’s toxic stress. It’s a constant overload, and that has a bad impact on health, learning, and relationships that can last a lifetime. Parents who grew up experiencing toxic stress can overreact to stress in adulthood, and that can impact how we think and act.
It’s important to know what you can do as a parent to protect your kids from toxic stress and to help yourself overcome these dreadful situations that can feel like the end of the world.
Planning for Your Future
One of the biggest challenges for parents affected by the stress of child welfare involvement is planning. When you are in a crisis, your mind focuses on immediate threats, not on planning ahead. That can make it even harder to keep track of the many mandates, appointments, visits, and court dates that come with foster care.
Parents need to work extra hard to keep plans in focus. Make sure you know what your service plan is. Get a calendar and write down all appointments, reviewing your calendar before you commit to anything. Call your caseworker regularly to make sure you’re not forgetting anything and that you have the right information. Write out transportation and other expenses for your week so you can ask for assistance if needed.
Caseworkers can help parents by scheduling all mandated services in one place. They can also ask: “Do you need a calendar to plan your month? Can I assist you in reviewing this week’s goals? Do you have transportation for all appointments? Do you know how to get to these places? Is there anything you need from me to help you reach these goals? Please feel free to call me for guidance or any questions you may have.”
Calm and in Control
Another challenge is staying calm. When people feel threatened, we get a “flight or fight feeling”—we just want to hide, or we go into attack mode. Sometimes we don’t know how to take back control of our lives.
Parents, ask your caseworker if there is a parent advocate at your agency to help you overcome the everyday stresses of dealing with the child welfare system. Or look for a support group where you can speak your truth with others that have felt the same pain.
Confusion can lead to frustration, so if you don’t know why things are not moving along in your case, ask your worker. You can also ask to know what your caseworker plans to report in court. Your worker should tell you the negative and the positive. You can ask what you need to do specifically to fix the negatives before the next court date.
Caseworkers can help by giving parents options about services. For example, even if a parenting class is mandated, parents should be able to choose the type or location. Choices give parents back a sense of control.
Caseworkers also can encourage parents and acknowledge successes, even when they may seem trivial. For a parent, completing a service is big; a caseworker may have that “you were supposed to do this” type of feeling. Big difference between the two.
Protecting Your Child
A third challenge is protecting your child from stress. The Harvard paper describes how “serve and return” moments give your child a comfort zone feeling. “Serve and return” just means that you and your child are responding to each other, like when you play peek-a-boo with your 2 year old. Your child expects you to be behind your hands, and their smile when they find you brings joy. Talking to your child, playing games and reading stories together all give you those serve-and-return moments that build bonds.
It is hard for parents to give their children those serve-and-return moments when parents are consumed with their own overwhelming feelings. And when kids are in foster care, it can be difficult to engage a child who may be sensing and feeling your anger or hurt, and who is feeling anger and hurt of his own.
The Pain of Visits
When I visited my son at the foster care agency, he did not act like he did at home. At home, he usually never got off me. Whether he was sitting, jumping, or playing, he was always interacting with me. During visits, though, he kept his distance and barely looked my way. The confusion I felt trying to understand his behavior toward me was overwhelming.
I tried to imagine what was going through his little mind, asking myself, “Is my son rejecting me because he hates me? Does he not feel my love for him? Does he think I’m a stranger, like an aunt who visits him weekly?” I also blamed the agency and the foster mother for the change in my son. For so long at visits, I was so upset and angry that I found it hard to even try to engage my son.
What helped me build back the attachment I had with my son was remembering our unbreakable bond before the system. I was also consistent with going to visits. No matter how mad, confused, or crazy I may have been, I loved my son more than life itself and I never missed a visit. That helped my son see that I wasn’t going anywhere and would always keep fighting for him. I brought toys he liked and kept reminding him that, no matter where he slept, I loved him. Slowly he began to draw my way.
Making the Most
It’s not easy, but as parents we can help ourselves and our children during visits by simply trying to focus on our children and thinking about how they view our behaviors. Children need security; they need to feel mom or dad walking in to a visit with the mindset of “it’s all about my baby.” Keeping focused on those back-and-forth moments can help you have a joyful visit even if your heart is breaking.
Caseworkers can explain the importance of “serve-and-return” moments and ask, “How can I help with keeping you calm and engaging the child during visiting?”
Also, parents are usually told what not to do. Tell us what we should be doing, like bringing snacks and activities to visits.
Caseworkers can empower parents when they are doing well by celebrating accomplishments. If mom just completed her parenting classes, take her and baby out for a slice of pizza at the next visit. Caseworkers can also refer struggling parents to get the right help, like visit coaching or parent-child therapy.
What You Can’t See
Above all, professionals need to remember that parents may be facing issues that outsiders don’t see.
When my son was in foster care, my workers didn’t have the relationship with me to know that I lost my apartment (without a child on my case I could not afford the rent anymore) and then lost my job for getting there late or not showing up. I even lost two family members, but since I was already dead inside I couldn’t cry and grieve for two important people in my life.
I wish my worker could have been a person I told, “I don’t know what I’m doing or how to fix things. My heart can’t feel. Help me help myself.” But I felt like no one even cared that I was losing so much and was drowning within my own skin.
I encourage parents to feel confident in telling the worker, “I just had a death in the family,” or, “I am in danger of losing my apartment, so if I’m a little off, please excuse me.” Parents can also tell workers, “I lost my job and it feels stressful that I cannot buy my baby a snack for the visit this week. Can the agency assist me?”
Seeing Past the Stress
It wasn’t easy for me to get myself back together, to reorganize my thoughts and get my feelings under control, but I did do it, and so can you. I did it by focusing on what’s important: my son. I wanted to be a better me for me and my son. That willed me to do great things, then and now.
Keeping what he needed in mind helped me let go of the attack mode and try to give the people on my case a chance. Thinking about my future with my son helped me make plans to grow by going back to school, finding a job and finding my own sense of stability. Finding outlets outside of the child welfare system also played a big role in getting my head straight.
I especially encourage parents and child welfare professionals to empower parents by planning employment training or school enrollment. Child welfare can seem never-ending. Focusing on a successful future also refocuses the parent’s attention away from negativity and shows hope.
Ask parents about their goals for education or employment, and plan what school or job training the parent may be interested in attending once their case ends. That can help parents see past their stress.