Help! My foster (or adopted) child won’t stop crying . . .
I’ve been there friend. I’ve lived in that place for years.
The second day we had our 12-month-old foster twins home, I thought one of them had an infection or medical problem because she was crying so fiercely like she was in pain. I still remember the rainbow stripped pajamas she wore sent from her previous foster home and bandaging all over her thumb as I paced with her for hours in a crowded emergency room.
Her left thumb had been accidentally broken a week earlier in a baby gate and was wrapped in tape and gauze. The triage doctor thought maybe it had become infected and that’s why she was inconsolable. She unwrapped the thumb, checked her ears and vitals, and asked me dozens of questions.
She and couldn’t find anything physically wrong.
It hit me like a ton of bricks, this is what a toddler in foster care grieving the loss of another home is like. You would have thought she needed stitches or a cast. But something deeper and hidden was broken, and would take much longer to heal.
Foster care and adoption always begin with loss, and one hundred percent of our children come to us with a history and connection that existed before us. Every new placement, even if it is for a beautiful or just reason, is a fresh trauma for our kids.
Months went by and the twins were still crying seemingly all the time. At a checkup, the exasperated doctor, who could hardly talk over their toddler whaling, asked me what was wrong with them. Searching my brain, the only answer I came up with a desperate whisper “I don’t know.”
They were like colicky newborns in toddler bodies. I had a colicky newborn once, and they acted very much the same. They were only happy when I was holding them standing up, bouncing or swaying. You can imagine the challenge in doing this with fifty pounds of toddler instead of a tiny sweet newborn.
Children who endure abuse or neglect, will divert the energy they should be using on development for survival instead. When they feel safe enough, they will revert back to those earlier stages and pick up where they left off. It is incredibly normal for foster and adoptive children be emotionally younger than their chronological age.
Our brains have this amazing ability to sense danger and trigger a cascade of neurotransmitters like cortisol and adrenaline to put us in fight, flight, or freeze mode and help keep us alive. If you’re being attacked by a bear, you’re going to want to run like your life depended on it.
The same is true for many of our kids. They had to fight for safety and nourishment, and now they don’t know how to stop fighting.
Imagine you and I are on an amazing hike when we accidentally come between a mama bear and her cub, and she begins to charge us. We start running like our lives depend on it. I lean over and start asking you a dozen intellectual questions about the feeding habits of bears. You would probably scream at me to be quiet, not hear a word I say, and keep running.
That is how our kids feel when we try to reason with them in fight or flight mode. Sometimes they think we are the bear, or at best the annoying friend slowing them down from survival. Focus first on using as few words as possible helping your child feel safe, then wait to have important conversations when they are calm.
The biggest pitfall of your child crying all the time, is not actually their crying. Over time their crying triggers your own flight, fight, or freeze response. We call this secondary trauma, and it is a real issue for parents and can lead to post placement anxiety and depression.
Now your child is running from the bear of their past, and you’re running from your own bear, and it’s your child. This can place us at odds against each other and keep us from healing. We should all wear shirts that say, “not responsible for what I said while running from a bear.”
It’s crucial to pay close attention to our own emotional regulation as parents. This is how we help our kids learn these skills and get the extra help they may need. In my eight years of parenting foster and adopted children with emotional challenges I’ve tried therapy, medication, supplements, and therapeutic parenting. But getting a hold on my own emotional responses is the best thing I have done to help them.
If you are overwhelmed, triggered by your child, or resentful of their rejection, you need to put your oxygen mask on and take better care of yourself.
Practice self-care and gratitude, and learn to navigate relationship and cultivate community. Examen the thoughts and feelings causing you to be triggered. Remember God knew you were imperfect but chose you anyway. These are the ingredients to becoming a healthy parent.
Faith Forward Adoption, available at amazon, is a six-week study in selfcare and transforming toxic thinking. I wrote it specifically for foster and adoptive parents to go from triggered and exhausted, to overcoming and thriving. It will equip you with all the tools you need to stop running from the bear. If you need more intensive, or individualized support, you can also enroll in private coaching through zoom. Go here to learn more.