My introduction to foster care was similar to those around me — an after-school TV special as a kid. I grew up in a stable home with loving parental figures and a pretty good head on my shoulders. I saw this after-school special and decided when “I get big” I would be a foster parent.
Of course, the show made foster care look easy. But the seed was planted. I did the college thing then went on to the military. I got out of the military and went back to college, always with this thought of wanting to do foster care. However, I was never at a place where I could. Either I lived in a place too small, was not emotionally prepared to be a parent or couldn’t even take care of myself financially, much less another human being. So, it kept being put off.
But in 2021, my mom was moving out of the place we had shared and I had this four-bedroom home. I could either start to foster or I needed to find a different place to live. So when my mom told me she was moving out, I contacted Children’s Wisconsin and asked what I needed to do to become licensed.
When I started foster care, I knew it would be difficult. Here I am, a single, 43-year-old, disabled veteran with no kids. However, I had the heart. I had worked with at-risk youth. I nannied my nephew for 4 years. I worked in group homes. And, above all, I had the desire to help. I went through training and decided I only wanted to foster older kids — like 14 and older. I knew they were the hardest to place.
As I neared the end of my training, my social worker told me she had a potential placement. A 14-year-old boy who was coming from a group home and had been in care for more than 5 years. He already had many placements prior, but she felt my home would work because he needed 1-on-1 attention.
We met and I knew it was perfect. He was this funny, upbeat, insightful kid who needed safety. I found out I was his 14th placement and he came with some baggage. We talked about what he needed to feel safe and heard. We talked about how to make my home OUR home. We talked about expectations, rules, boundaries, etc. We talked about family, mental health, safe sex and relationships. From the beginning, I was open with him and he learned I was safe and, quite frankly, funny (He may disagree that I’m funny, but I was the funniest person I knew until I met him).
We laughed a lot. I cried a lot. There were blow ups and behaviors that would make most people run away. And, honestly, in his past, it did make people ran away. He was used to everyone giving up on him. He was testing to see if I was true to my word that I would stay. He soon learned that “no matter what and even if,” he was coming back home. No matter what he did, even if he ran away, called me names, threw stuff, broke stuff, skipped school, did drugs, got into fights, got into trouble…he was still coming home. He was still safe and while he would have to deal with the consequences of his actions, leaving our house forever was never one of them.
He learned he could trust me when he was feeling big feels. He started coming upstairs and saying, “Kristy, can we talk?” He learned that no matter what I was doing, I would drop it, and listen and talk through the issues. He learned that he could call me when he got into trouble and even before. He would say our safe word and he knew I would get him. He learned he could talk through trauma and hurt and pain, and we would find a safe space to feel those emotions.
He slowly started to heal. He started to notice his triggers and call them out. He started to recognize the maladaptive behaviors and coping skills he had held onto for so long, and started to recognize they weren’t working anymore. He asked to go to family therapy with me so we could communicate better. He asked that we spend time “just the two of us.” I became his person. The person he trusted when he felt disregulated. The person he would call when he was upset. The person he would talk to when something hard would happen. The person he wanted to share news with.
Raising a “trauma teen” hasn’t been easy. However, I could have never imagined the relationship we have built. He tells me I’m “just as immature as he is.” Though I would disagree. I do agree that my humor can rival that of a teenage boy sometimes, and that is what helped bring his guard down in the beginning. He would sometimes say random, usually offensive, things just to get a reaction. He soon learned I have come backs just as quick as his statements.
Many people may not understand our humor and that is okay. Sometimes I question my parenting ability due to our sarcastic relationship. But then I look at how much he has grown, how much he has learned to trust and how much he has healed. In the beginning it was hard! I was told I could put in notice if I couldn’t handle it. I was told that maybe he was “too much.” I told myself day after day, I was not going to be another person who gave up on him. I was not going to allow the hardship get in the way of his growth.
We are now at a place where we go weeks and weeks without trauma responses. I am now learning how to parent a “regular teenager” and that seems to be significantly harder that a “trauma teen” for me. I know how to handle the behaviors and outburst. I am less skilled at parenting the normal teenage behaviors. He sits on his video games for hours, drinks more caffeine than is probably healthy and talks back about little things. Then I remember, this is what I wanted. This is where I wanted my kid to get to.
Sure, there are still struggles we are dealing with and maladaptive coping skills we are reteaching. However, we have way more days of “normal teen” than “trauma teen” and that is something I am grateful for daily.
Foster care is hard. Loving a child with trauma is hard. Co-parenting is hard. However, the healing that can take place makes every tear worth it.