For the past four years or so, my whole life has revolved around behavior modification, trauma healing, and foster care. In that time, I’ve learned how to remain emotionally unaffected by the behaviors of the people (or children) around me and respond to them in neutral ways. I’ve also learned how important it is to take care of myself so I can do my job.
When I’m not emotionally healthy, I don’t have the necessary tools in my toolbox to give “behavior” kids what they need. The same applies to parents, teaching, and caregivers of children who have higher emotional/behavioral needs than most.
Here’s how I know firsthand.
I’ve gone through an incredible amount of grief over the past few weeks, and, in that time, I’ve been almost completely unable to provide my foster daughter with what she needs. She has always had a higher level of needs than my two biological children, but we’ve always tried to integrate her as seamlessly as possible into our lives. We never wanted her to know that she required more patience, more teaching, more empathy, and more emotional energy.
And for the most part, I think we’ve always been successful. She has never had any idea that we stayed up late most nights processing her behaviors and trying to come up with a game plan for the next day. She didn’t realize we took deep breaths in the kitchen when she wasn’t looking. She really didn’t know how heavy the burden of her past trauma was on our hearts, especially when we had to watch her relive it through nightmares and breakdowns.
She had no idea, and that’s exactly how we wanted it. She’s just our kid. Nothing else. And that’s all she needed to feel.
But because of my grief and the joy it has stolen from me, she has finally seen what it takes for me to be a healthy parent to her. She has finally noticed that there’s a difference between what she needs and what my other two need.
For three weeks, I’ve been completely empty inside, which has made it nearly impossible to be patient, or energetic, or empathetic toward anyone. In circumstances where I usually bend down to look in her eyes, speak to her with a gentle voice, and get to the bottom of what’s going on, I’ve instead been short with my words and lazy in my actions. I’ve had nothing to give her, and she has noticed.
It’s not that I’m able to give my biological children more than I’m giving her. It’s that I’m not able to give ANY of them ANYTHING. I can’t even reply to text messages or phone calls. How on Earth would I be able to have an emotional conversation about a boy she likes at school AT SIX O’CLOCK IN THE FREAKING MORNING when I haven’t slept more than ten hours all week?
For my biological children, my newfound inabilities aren’t a big deal. They don’t need much upkeep from me on a day-to-day basis. They entertain themselves when they wake up, they don’t care if I make dinner or feed them chicken nuggets and candy, and they couldn’t care less if there’s a mountain of laundry on their bed at night. They were sad when they saw me cry for a week straight, but they didn’t feel angry with me. They didn’t respond to my lack of parenting by acting out in overwhelming ways.
For my foster daughter, it was a completely different story. My constant crying caused her a lot of anxiety. Not having dinner consistently every night threw her out of routine. Seeing the laundry pile up around the house made her angry. She needs consistency, neutrality, and caretaking, which I wasn’t able to give at all.
This girl also gets almost all of her emotional needs met by me. I’m responsible for filling up about 98% of her love tank, which means that her tank is pretty close to empty right now. I haven’t been able to sit down and talk with her or take her out for ice cream. I don’t want hugs, I can’t stand the thought of a snuggle, and I don’t want to read anyone books at night. I know she needs those things, but I literally haven’t been able to offer them to her.
In other words, she’s miserable because I’ve been miserable.
I know that my grief will ebb and that I’ll be able to take better care of her again soon. My emotions (and behavior) have already improved over the past week, but it’s a learning curve that requires a lot of dedication on both our parts. I have to hang in there, knowing that she isn’t trying to push my buttons while I’m grieving, and she has to hang in there, knowing that I’m not giving up on her. It’s so hard.
I know that if I settled into this mentality and accepted it as permanent, I wouldn’t last much longer as a foster parent. It really is imperative that I’m healthy enough to put her needs before my desires, but it’s hard to do that when I can’t even focus on my own needs.
Our priorities have to stay in order as much as possible so we can keep going. Our own needs come first, then the needs of our children, and then the desires of our children (or the “extras”). If we get stuck in emotional survival mode, our own needs are the only thing on our minds all day long.
We’ve got to push past that and work through our own unhealthiness so that we can get to the next step.
My situation is obviously different than a lot of “unhealthy” parents, but I think the principles are the same. If you have emotional baggage that you haven’t worked through yet–mental obstacles that distract your mind and steal your ability to control your emotions–then you won’t be able to provide quality care to a child who has behavioral needs. Their unhealthiness requires healthiness on your part.
Go see a counselor so your kid doesn’t have to BECAUSE of you.