Children aren’t the only ones with connection needs. Foster parents have needs too! Foster and adoptive parents have a deep, heartfelt desire to have peace in their lives. However, sometimes a foster parent’s needs clash with the child’s, creating a scenario in which everyone is hungry for connection and no one is being fed.
Back to Bob
In my last article, I introduced a fictional food service patron named Bob, who caused quite a commotion during his visit. It’s not hard to imagine the thoughts and feelings of those around him in the restaurant – the host who brought him to his seat, the server in charge of his care, and the kitchen staff responsible for his meal. They weren’t the only ones impacted. The other diners sitting nearby must have felt the tension in the air as the drama played out in front of them.
For some unknown reason, Bob lacked peace in his life, which led to attitudes and behaviors that disturbed the peace of everyone around him.
Anxiety Is Contagious
The hunger for connection is a natural and neurological drive for peace in relation to your body, environment, people around you, and future. This hunger is an excellent thing. It keeps us alive, ensuring that we are seen, soothed, safe, and secure. Hunger drives us toward healthy relationships, offering opportunities to be fed and to build connections. However, when that hunger gets too intense for the nervous system to withstand, the body goes into protection mode. Sensing danger, the focus goes inward instead of outward. Others can sense this anxiety, and it often creates anxiety in them.
My family got involved in foster and adoptive care thinking we would be taking the peace God had granted to us and sharing it with a child from outside our family of origin. Never did I consider how much a child’s lack of peace might interfere with their ability to be open and receptive to our care. Furthermore, I hadn’t predicted how much their chronic anxiety would trigger a stress response within me.
Babies Are Selfish
As my children get older, there are aspects of having a baby in the house that I miss. However, being awoken in the middle of the night by screams and cries is not one of them.
A hungry baby has no concept of politeness, courtesy, timeliness, self-comfort, or even self-awareness. All they know is that something hurts and they have no way of stopping it. Human babies are quite different from other mammalian newborns in the amount of compassionate care they require to survive.
In fact, the first three months of life are sometimes referred to as “the fourth trimester” for this very reason. Babies are totally at the mercy of others to notice them, recognize their condition, and care for their needs despite their inability to communicate with words.
A crying baby can disturb a peaceful night’s sleep, putting their mom or dad in a seriously sour mood. One could try telling the baby, “Knock it off. It’s sleepy time right now. I’ll feed you in the morning.” However, most caregivers understand this tactic is more about meeting their own immediate need to protect their sense of peace rather than helping their child to find theirs. If they can assure themselves that their peace will be restored after giving the crying baby what they need, then everyone will eventually return to a comfortable equilibrium.
Looks Can Be Deceiving
Looking at a crying baby, it’s easy to recognize that they don’t have it within themselves to communicate what they need or to meet their need to feed without outside intervention.
That’s not always the case for children entering a home through foster care or adoption. Children who have been separated from their family of origin or have undergone adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) tend to have an overactive nervous system, making them prone to be emotionally overwhelmed to a much greater extent than their chronological peers.
This apparent mismatch between age and behavior creates a challenge for parents who don’t naturally recognize a child having a meltdown or an emotional outburst as needing intervention. Rather, they are far more likely to feel embarrassed, ashamed, or even threatened.
There’s a Word for That
Lisa Qualls – who co-authored the groundbreaking book The Connected Parent – recently released her latest work, Reclaim Compassion. Written with her Adoption Connection podcast co-host Melissa Corkum, Lisa provides insights from faith and science on how to overcome what they call blocked care. Blocked care is “a self-protective mechanism in your nervous system that makes it difficult to connect with your child and maintain compassion.”
When a child’s chronic anxiety manifests itself in emotionally charged reactions to otherwise compassionate caregiving, a parent’s compassion center of the brain gets overpowered by the need to regain peace in the situation – even if it means coming across as less-than-compassionate toward the child. This was a huge challenge in my parenting for many years and continues to be a recurring struggle. However, there are proactive ways we can reduce or prevent our tendency to block our ability to provide empathy.
Preventing Blocked Care
1. Feed Yourself.
Caring for your body is important for all aspects of your life, including parenting. Proper diet, exercise, sleep, and good mental health practices help put you in a position where you are more emotionally flexible and less reactive to external circumstances.
2. Have Others Who Are Feeding You.
Gather around yourself a network of supporting and understanding people who keep you grounded in truth and help you with your needs as a foster parent. This network can include friends, family, support groups, therapists, conferences, and even podcasts.
3. Renew Your Mind During the Good Times.
In between those incidents of elevated emotions are opportunities to begin developing different ways of thinking and feeling about one another. If you ask me, there is no better way to take advantage of these open and receptive times between parent and child than to spend time cooking and eating together in the kitchen. The inherent trust that is tied to this deeply embodied experience of preparing and consuming food is a powerful way to rewire the brain – both of your brains – toward felt safety and connection. These investments in the neurological connections between the two of you will pay dividends during the hard times, expanding your windows of tolerance and helping to ensure nobody goes hungry.
©2023 Chef Kibby. All Rights Reserved. Used with Permission.