What makes a good foster dad? … a reader asks
Recently, a newer reader to my blog, James, asked this question regarding Foster Dads. I thought this was a great question, and since I have written one on What Makes a Good Foster Mom (click), I was surprised that I never did this. But as James commented, perhaps because my relationships with men have been so hurtful, I have neglected this area. But, it is very important and thus, I thought about this and came up with my list. It was harder for me than writing the What makes a Good Foster Mom blog, because it was harder for me to recall “GOOD” foster dads. As I have written in the past, many were either hurtful or distant… but there were a couple that GOT IT.
This list reflects ideas that worked well for me, a child who was abused in a myriad of ways. Since my experience in foster care was that biofathers/stepfathers/boyfriends were the main abusers, I think it would be appropriate for many children. Many of the ideas from the MOM post are important, so this is an addition to those! I am NOT a therapist, so don’t send me hurtful comments telling me I don’t know what I am talking about… I am just sharing things that I felt were helpful and created more connection between the couple Foster Dads that GOT IT and those that did not care..
So, not in any particular order, because they are ALL important….
1) Code Words
There is nothing more scary or un-nerving to an abused child or a child with PTSD than when someone comes up behind them or comes into “their space” with no notice. To this day, I jump when a male enters an area and I am not aware.
Since many abused children are very hypervigilant and on the edge, using a Code Word to announce your presence when coming into a room or into “the child’s space” can be VERY helpful and VERY safe.
What this basically involves is using a word or a phrase before you enter a room, so that the child knows you are coming. The foster parents and the children can decide on the Code Word together, so that everyone understands it and is involved in the decision. It might sound ridiculous, but it offers a sense of safety to the child, because no-one can come up behind or sneak in the room. When I lived with the Hippies, initially everyone used “stoplight” when entering a room. This was a word that was not commonly used, so there would be no confusion about what it meant. As time elapsed, and I got more comfortable in the home, the Code Word was only used for bedrooms or small areas, where I felt confined and at greater risk. I think this is extremely important for Foster Dads, because it is usually males behaviors that have caused the fear.
2) Keep your Hands Off
Keep your hands off the child unless you ask permission to touch or hug, or the child approaches you. For many children, touch from men has been hurtful, confusing, and overwhelming. Alot of touch was not wanted. Respect the boundaries and allow the child control of who touches them! Remember that even touch that may be “normal” can be scary for an abused child… holding hands might have led to being taken to the bedroom, stroking hair is “grooming” behavior, adjusting clothing might imply that it is going to be taken off, etc. Ask first — “Can I give you a hug.” or “Can I hold your hand.” — If the child says no, use your voice and empathy to connect. Not all children want to be touched. If the child says yes, tell them that you are doing it — “I am going to take your hand now.” Then ask if it is ok.
3) Don’t Always Be the Disciplinarian and Reparent
In the foster child’s world, the male figure that was in their lives was usually “the punisher.” As a Foster Dad, don’t become that role, even if you feel that the discipline is “normal.” I strongly advocate that both foster parents be involved in the discipline of children and that it be done as a team, so that neither foster parent takes on the “punisher role.”
Abused children may automatically assume that the Foster Dad wants certain things, as punishment or as a way to get out of punishment. When these “almost automatic” behaviors occur, it is a time to GENTLY reparent, redirect the behaviors, and explain that “dad’s should not want those things.” Anytime a child attempts to please a male, they are doing what they have learned to do OR what they have learned to do to reduce the hurt to themselves. Punishment does not help in these situations, because the child is already confused enough. Be clear that the behavior is not expected, that it was wrong to happen in the past, and that “normal” punishment consists of X, Y, Z. Abused children can be very confused about appropriate behavior. It is not their fault…. it is the fault of past people who used the child and mixed abuse with love and words of punishment.
If situations arise where you need to punish, be creative (See my MOM post for more about creativity).
4) Get Down on the Floor
Get on the floor and play. Get on the swings and swing. Get at the table and sit. Get down to the child’s level to relate. Big men standing over children can be scary. Bend down, so kids are not looking up all the time. My relationship with “fathers” is fucked up, so I do not know if it is common-place for fathers to “play” with their daughters. But do it. I honestly can’t remember any “father” just playing with me for the sake of playing. Play is one of the best ways to encourage creativity, sponateonity, freedom, and fun. Become the super-hero, the power-puff girl, or sit at a tea party. Play cars or barbie or whatever the child whats to play. Go outside and play. Run around pretending you are animals, or superheros, or charlies’ angels. Play. Appropriately.
5) Share Your Knowledge About “Male” Things
How do I change a tire? I don’t know. How do I throw a football? I don’t know. How do I check the oil? I don’t know. How do I fix a toilet that keeps running? No clue. Get my drift, guys? Share what you know because it can both bring you closer together, but also help when the child becomes an adult! Yes, I can read how to do these things, but what a gift it would be to say “Oh, my Foster Dad taught me how to find a stud in the wall.”
6) Go Out of the Way to Show MOM Some Love
Many foster or abused children are coming from backgrounds where domestic violence exists, along with child abuse. No appropriate “love,” “caring,” or “gentle touch” from a man is shown to anyone. Children remember their mom with a black eye or sore side for along time. Don’t be afraid to model appropriate touch to your partner; give them a hug, hold their hand, massage the shoulders. Things that are SAFE and should be a part of a healthy relationship. Remember my story about watching the Hippies dance when I came home from school and “seeing LOVE for the first time.” That moment impacted me greatly, because there was so much caring and gentility between a man and a woman.. Even now, I watch the interaction between Jessie and Mark, who hold hands, hug, and touch freely. Children learn from what they are taught. And children are always watching…. What a GREAT chance to create some positive memories of appropriate adult touch.
7) Put on the Apron
Many children come from homes where the father was the authoritarian figure and the mother the slave. SO, help change that…cook dinner, clean the table, do the dishes, clean the house, put out the trash, etc, etc. — “traditional” female jobs. In many cases, if the work was not done correctly, things would get thrown, people got hit, yelling, screaming, etc. There was no teamwork or helping each other out. My message here dads is …. don’t be afraid to do the dishes… with the child at times! Alter the roles children saw before…
You will at multiple times trigger a child. Dr. Val still triggers me, because it is impossible to know all the triggers a child/person has unless you are together for years. Triggers can be words, smells, touch, the sight of something, a noise, … and everyone’s triggers are different. So just because you are learning the triggers of one child, does not mean you will know the triggers of another child! When you a trigger a child, they may freeze, run, regress, or dissociate. I mean FREEZE, like an opossum, breathing swallow, quiet. “If I don’t move, you can’t see me. If you can’t see me, you can’t get me.” If a child RUNS, they are most likely going to look for a hiding place… closets, garages, basement, under porches, in corners, under beds.. “small places where you can’t find me.” If a child REGRESSES, several things could happen. I have regressed and curled up in a ball, sobbing. I have regressed and climbed under desks all the way to the back, covering my face. I have regressed and hidden behind chairs. If a child DISSOCIATES, look for confusion, changes in pupil size in the eye, a “stupid” look on the face, or a calm look on the face, day dreaming, silence, and slow motion. Dissociation does NOT mean a child has “switched” to another part…. it means the child is leaving the “danger” by altering the mind…NOT necessarily becoming another part.
DO NOT touch the child. If a person touches me when I am triggered, it makes things worse and I will freak out! With a calm, soothing, gentle voice tell the child she/he is safe and where they are. Describe who you are. Then describe the room, making note of things that the child can relate to. “LT, you are safe in the kitchen. In front of you is your chocolate chip cookies that you were eating and a glass of milk. You are sitting in the chair at the table….yadda yadda yadda.” Slow, gentle and soothing. Talk about breathing. “LT, feel your breath in your lungs. Breathe in and out. Feel your feet on the ground.” The child may not respond at first, but keep talking.
Once you have learned a trigger, keep a list so you don’t purposely trigger a child again. Over time, some of the triggers lose their power. Some will always be there. But helping the child through it, will help reduce the power.
a) Stay out of the bedroom. Allow the child her SAFE space.
b) If a child has been sexually abused by a male, stay out of the bathroom.
c) DO NOT make negative comments on a foster child’s appearance, even if you think it is appropriate. For example, if your teen foster daughter is dressing emo, don’t tell her to put on a dress, look like a girl, put on make-up, etc. Keep all comments positive or say nothing. Girls that have been abused have already been called all kinds of things… don’t go there.
This was more difficult for me to write than the Mom blog. Perhaps readers can add their thoughts and ideas as well. Of course children who were not abused may not have many of these issues and the relationship with them might be “easier.” Hope this helps…thanks for the good question!