As a clinician I should have understood it all. It took, however, being a foster parent to understand a major problem faced by any parent caring for children in the absence of another parent or both birth parents.

At root is the old fable, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.”  Not a fable, for the absent parent or the parent least involved in a child’s life almost always becomes idealized.  Moreover, in one of life’s more unfair blows, the parent who provides the most care is the one who becomes the child’s target for releasing anger that usually belongs to the absent parent.

Here is a story of one of our foster children, illustrating the problems created by this displaced anger.  She was only twelve, quite young to be sent to our foster home. We provided short term care to youngsters in trouble with the law. Most were fourteen or fifteen.

Karen, not her real name, had a sad story.  Her Mom, more in love with a boyfriend than her daughter, left Karen sleeping one night in her own room in their tiny apartment.  She walked out, left the town with boyfriend, and vanished, never to be heard from again. The mother cared enough to call the police several hours later to report an abandoned child sleeping in an unlocked apartment.

Since being so cruelly abandoned, Karen was placed in one foster home after another.  The first foster home was a temporary home, then she was moved to one that was to be permanent, but Karen’s cursing drove the foster mother crazy. The foster mom could handle the cursing in her home, but in public. It devastated her sensibilities. When Karen took to cursing in church, the foster mother asked for her removal. Everyone thought Mom was a bit too rigid.

Karen’s next home was for difficult kids. The foster mother tolerated Karen’s new habit—shop lifting—relatively well, but when she broke into the neighbor’s home to steal, the neighbor pressed charges and the foster care agency refused to let her stay in that particular foster home. We were next on the list.

Karen looked even younger than her years and she seemed quiet to the point of mousiness.  No curse words, no stealing.  But a week after living with us, swatikas became appearing on our walls.  Karen was the artist. When caught, she shrugged and said she had the right to express her feelings. She had picked the one behavior that would and did drive my husband, a son of the Holocaust, crazy. Fortunately, by that time she was due to be transferred to another long term home.

I had also come to suspect I knew why Karen was not making it in any foster home. The pain of being kicked out of any family trying to care for her challenged her explanation for her mother’s abandonment.  Karen needed to believe she was so bad and that no parent would love her. The idea that her mother just didn’t love her was much more painful than thinking she deserved being rejected.

I shared my concerns with her probation officer; he laughed me off.  He knew the home that was taking Karen in. He assured me, “They can take anything she dishes out.”

Not true, when Karen was found sexually molesting a three year old, back she went to the lock-up.  She stayed there until placed in a long term detention facility.

Another foster child, had clued us into how painful it was for a child to be in a home offering better care than the biological parents.

“It hurts too much if you treat us better than our own parents. Slap us around a bit, you’ll see we will all behave.”

We would not abuse, but we did become better at not intensifying the child’s pain


Here are the five top tips that might help. You should already know some, but all are worth repeating.  Moreover, I think every parent caring for someone else’s child should print these tips and memorize them.

TIP ONE: Understand the child’s pain.  Grown-ups have a hard time understanding how any parent can abandon a child; for the abandoned child it is even harder to explain.  Karen was by trying to prove that her mother left her because she was bad.  Blaming yourself for the bad things that happen is a common strategy among children; doing so gives you more control.  However, if other parents could tolerate her, her mother must not have loved her.  Karen was also very skillful at figuring out what behavior was most likely to get a parent to reject her. Hopefully, understanding this will keep you from personalizing all the problems some kids have in dealing with the loss of life with both parents.

The loss of a parent is painful, but more painful is the loss of love. A great many children, for one reason or another, deal with the loss of a parent and do just fine; others do not. These are the children who feel a loss of love as well as the parent’s physical presence. To complicate things more, some kids do fine until the changing thoughts of adolescence. When a child moves into the stage of thought called ‘formal’ by the theorists, he or she then can think more deeply and often will no longer accept earlier explanations about the events of their lives. For example, children of divorce may wonder why parents hired lawyers instead of therapists.

Parents may say, “Our love for you continues.”

A teen will say, “But not enough to stay together.”

Karen needed a competent therapist who could work with her and her substitute parents. Karen had to mourn the loss of her mother’s love.  First job would be helping Karen understand her mother loved her as much as she could, but it wasn’t enough to give her all the care a mother needed to give.  She needed to understand her mother was the problem; that her mother had problems, and the problems hurt Karen.  Being an adult means forgiving your parents, for all parents are flawed. She also has to be helped to forgive herself for acting out against the parents who wanted to care for her.  Forgiving yourself for disappointing and hurting parents is also part of becoming an adult.

TIP TWO: Resist being a target. The child needs you to be a bad parent. Many are very good at pushing parental buttons. Such children often become skilled at Gotcha Wars.  Read the Wikihow I started about Gotcha Wars.  A Gotcha War is a war in which the other person, not just children, needs you to be angry and to look foolish. Here is the link.

Make sure your rules are reasonable, the punishments clear, and easily enforced without the child’s cooperation.  Loss of allowance or loss of privilege are examples of punishments you don’t need the child’s cooperation to enforce.  Some people like to assign extra chores or write a note of apology to an offended party as punishments. If you want to do that, then take the two step approach. First, the chore or written apology, then the restoration of privilege. Loss of allowance should not be revoked.

TIP THREE : See anger as a tool and useful at times.  Develop your self-soothing skills, so you can stay relatively calm.  That means calm enough to avoid abuse, by which I mean giving into the temptation to announce you adopted this strange creature in front of you and now want to batter and bruise it.

At the same time a bit of anger is not a problem.  You are not an angel.  More over most kids know when anger means they have crossed a line. I developed what I call the CARE response.  Here is a brief description of how CARE works.

C = Care enough to confront unacceptable behavior.  That can mean stepping on your last nerve and making you angry enough to yell.

A = Ally with the child as soon as you are calm enough to remember who is the adult in the situation.  You might have to go to Time Out to calm down.  That is okay. But in time you need to be with and not against the child.

R = Review what got your goat or if you didn’t blow, what the child did wrong.  Always start the review by asking the child what they did to bring about the punishment or your blowing your cool.  Both you and the child should be clear on what the offending behavior is.  As rules and punishments should be  spelled out and written down, both should also know what the punishment will be.

E = End on a positive note.  One father tousled his son’s hair and said with a loving smile. “You did the crime, go do the time.”  A mother gave a hug and said, “I know you’ll do better next time.”  Find your own way of saying “I still care and I know you will keep trying to do better.”

TIP FOUR: Know the difference between good enough parenting and abuse.  Therapists, lawyers, friends and doctors often confuse the two and so harm parents and children by thinking a child is being abused when she or he is not.  When you know the law you are better protected when others start pointing fingers.

Here is how federal fact sheet defines child abuse: “Any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation; or an act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm.” Go to the web page for a fuller explanation, but if there is any chance for you to be accused of abusing or you think the other parent is abusive, check the state laws.

Fact: Many are accused of abuse, few are found to be abusive. Most accusations were unwarranted. What the majority of parents needed was more support and better advice about how to parent.

TIP FIVE: (This applies to anyone raising a child without both birth parents present.) Only say nice things about the absent parent.  Never volunteer criticism.  If someone else, including the child, criticizes, defend the parent. Here are words to memorize:

“She did the best she could. She loved you; she cared for you in the way she thought best.”

If there was abuse, do not excuse the abuse. Do not excuse any unacceptable behaviors. “That was wrong, but like every one if us, he did the best he could. He loved you, I am sure of that. Personal problems and not enough support lead him to abuse.”

“You have a right to criticize, but try not to let her keep hurting you.  That eats your heart.  You can’t change the past, but you can work to be the best person you can be.”

TIP FIVE: Do not be surprised by the acts created by an adolescent’s changing thoughts. The younger the child, the more what is just seems to be what ought to be.  Have only one parent? Not a problem.  Not being raised by your birth parent? Not a problem.  Have two parents of the same sex?  Not a problem. With children under the age of six, not making a big deal about the various differences is helpful. I am not at all convinced that books explaining adoption or gay parents to children who cannot read are actually helpful.

There is any old story about a boy asking his adopted parents where he came from.  He listened patiently to explanations that seemed to matter to the parents, but then finally blurted out “Joey, says he is from Boston.  Where am I from?”

Allow some mourning for a suddenly absent parent, but it should not be made too much of.  “ Of course, you miss your Mommy. I cannot bring her back, what else can I do to help you feel less sad.”  Is the best approach.

TIP SIX: Even if the child cannot continue to live in your home, work to maintain the relationship.  I think many of our foster children would have fared better if their former foster parents could have maintained contact.  Most of the time this was not allowed.  It meant neither party could make an amends.

I did get a few phone calls from some of our kids who were obviously doing a 12 step amends asking for our forgiveness.  I was both humbled, tearful, and hopeful when I got such phone calls.

TIP SEVEN: Hold on to the future.  Keep in mind Mark Twain’s saying, “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished by how much he’d learned in seven years.”

Good luck, life is a struggle, caring for children harder than you expect AND despite the struggle, life is wonderful with children in your life.  

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