Lesson 6 of 7 - keys to effective parenting

 Suggestions on Foster and Adoptive Parenting

Expect Major Challenges

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Experts Council

The Web address of this article is http://sfhelp.org/foster_adopt.htm

Updated  04-03-2015

      Clicking underlined links here will open a new window. Other links will open an informational popup, so please turn off your browser's popup blocker or allow popups from this nonprofit Web site. If your playback device doesn't support Javascript, the popups may not display. Follow underlined links after finishing this article to avoid getting lost.

      This is one of a series of Lesson-6 articles on how to be an effective parent in intact, divorcing, foster, and adoptive families. Adopting stepchildren is specially complex, and is explored in Lesson 7.

      This article is for...

  • adults considering foster care or adoption, or who have already taken one or more kids into their family; and for members of their extended family; and for... 

  • child-welfare workers at all levels, including those who train and license them; and for

  • public and private mental-health policy makers and program directors; and for...

  • professional and lay family educators, counselors, and therapists; and  for...

  • legal professionals who plead and rule on child-welfare issues, including parental abuse and neglect, adoption, child emancipation, and parental rights; and this article is for...

  • local, state, and federal legislators who pass child-welfare laws, and for those who enforce those laws.

      There is a lot of information on foster care and child adoption in print and on the Internet. I suspect little or none of it includes a family-systems viewpoint or any detail on the causes and effects of inherited [psychological wounds + unawareness] in kids and adults. This article attempts to fill both of those major omissions.

      This article hilights...

  • the foster-parent and adoption process; and...

  • why some adults choose to foster or adopt others' kids; and...

  • typical extra needs that foster and adopted children depend on their adults to fill; and...

  • Suggestions and resources for parents and professionals interested in foster parenting and/or child adoption.

      For perspective, This brief video proposes six requisites for effective parenting in any setting:

      This article assumes you're familiar with (a) basic info about foster care and child adoption, and (b) these articles...

  • the intro to this nonprofit Web site and the premises underlying it  

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 thru 5

  • typical minor kids' developmental and adjustment needs

  • common traits of a high-nurturance (functional) family,

  • perspective on effective parenting. and....

  • the lethal [wounds + unawareness] cycle

      Pause and reflect - what do you hope to learn from reading this article?


       Family adults share the responsibility of preparing their minor children to live healthy, productive lives on their own. As typical children grow, they have a series of developmental needs they depend on their adults to fill over two decades. The scope of modern social problems suggests most families don't succeed at this. Do you agree?

      Most state or provincial governments have a tax-funded child-welfare department to facilitate care for abandoned, neglected, and abused ("troubled") young kids and teens and their families.

      Typical foster kids enter the child welfare system because their family adults aren't able to nurture them (fill their needs) effectively. The high majority of such kids have endured significant adult neglect, abandonment, and abuse (trauma) during their early years. This promotes significant psychological wounds. which can slow normal development and cause school, social, and health problems.

      Millions of such traumatized kids go unnoticed by their societies. Others are taken from their dysfunctional families and become "wards of the state," They live in institutions until they...

  • return to their birthfamily, with supervision; or...

  • transfer to foster or adoptive homes, or...

  • they "age out" and are forced to live on their own - often before they're ready to do so.

Foster kids may be part of a sibling pair or group. Most agencies try to keep siblings together.

      Child adoption is the legal and sociological process of transferring parental responsibilities and rights from birth parents to one or two qualified new parents. The new adults may be genetically unrelated, or may be blood relatives like grandparents, aunts, or uncles. For a summary of adoption Q&A, see this and return here

      For optimum parenting of someone else's child(ren), you need to stay aware of the needs and limitations of everyone in each child's family system:

  • the birthparent/s and their relatives, and...

  • the new parent/s and their relatives and any kids; and...

  • each adopted or foster child; and...

  • the needs of the social caseworker/s, administrators, and lawyers that facilitate the placement and supervision of child care.

Family Variables

      Many factors shape the family environment that foster and adopted kids and teens grow up in:

  • the number of active parents (one or more)

  • the wholistic health of each parent (low to high);

  • each adults' developmental stage (immature > mature)

  • the parenting adults' relationship status and priorites;

  • the prior parenting experience of each adult (none > a lot);

  • the parents' and child's cultures, language/s, and race/s (the same or not);

  • the agency policies and state laws governing foster care and adoption;

  • whether the new parenting adults have biological kids, living with them or not;

  •  the age, gender, health, and knowledge of each child and each parent;

  •  each parent's reasons for fostering or adopting (below);

  • the reasons the child is not living with her/his bioparents;

  • whether the bioparents have given up their legal rights and responsibilities, and/or whether the child is legally emancipated;

  • how each parent reacts to significant losses (repression > healthy grief)

  • the attitudes of the new parents' relatives (supportive > indifferent > disapproving)

  • the social and physical environments around the family

  • the economic and social resources available to the family

  • (add your own factors)

      Option - prioritize this list from most to least impactful on the long-term outcome of foster or adoptive parenting. Then ask other family adults to do the same, and discuss your findings. One important factor is...

Typical Birth Parents

      Infants, young kids, and teens enter the foster-care system because some official rules that their biological parent/s are unable to nurture them adequately. The reasons for this span physical disability or death, or psychological or economic disability, Tho individual circumstances vary widely, usually...

     One or both birth parents survived significant neglect, abandonment, and abuse in their early childhood, This means they inherited significant [psychological wounds + unawareness] from their ancestors without knowing it.

      Where this is true, their own parents and relatives are probably
''Grown Wounded Children'' (GWCs) also. Commonly, none of these adults know about this toxic inheritance or what it means.

Implications for Foster and Adopted Kids

      Minor children who are separated from both birth parents have a mix of special needs superimposed on their normal developmental needs. They lack the comprehension and vocabulary to express these needs, and they depend on their adult caregivers to help fill them. Common special needs include...

  • Reducing confusion and anxieties - e.g. forming believable answers to questions like these:

"Why is this (family separation) happening to us? Is it my fault?"

"What's gong to happen to me/us?"

"Who's going to take care of me (or us siblings)?"

"Will I (or we) go back home? When?"

      More special needs...

  • (Re)building and maintaining self esteem - letting go of self-blame and shame; and....

  • Adjusting their personal identity - "Who am I now?" This is specially confusing for teens adjusting to puberty. And...

  • Understanding the real reasons for their family's dis-integration. This usually requires family therapy, as opposed to individual counseling; and...

  • Identifying and grieving a cluster of major losses. Often these kids have not been taught how to grieve well, Neither were their birthparents or ancestors.

      And typical welfare kids and teens need to...

  • (Re)gain stable personal security: "I'm (or we are) safe enough now and in the future!"; and...

  • (Re)gain stable hope for a better future; and to...

  • Adapt to new living and perhaps school conditions; and...

  • Separate themselves from their troubled birthparents and/or caregivers; and...

  • Perhaps to let go of feeling responsible for younger and/or troubled family members; and...

  • possibly to reconcile religious teachings and beliefs with their real-life traumas ad losses *"Does God really care about me?";

      and welfare kids need to...

  • (Re)learn to trust some or all adults as reliable and well-intentioned; and to...

  • maintain progress at school, as they sort out and juggle all these concurrent special needs;

      How many typical child-welfare workers, policy makers, and parents and do you think could name and describe all these concurrent special needs and how to fill them effectively?

Foster Care and Adoption Add More Needs

      Most kids enter the child-welfare system by living in a state-run institution (group setting). They're cared for by social workers and other staff in hopes of either returning to their birthparents or being placed in a home with foster or adoptive parents. The kids may live in one or more group settings for months or years. They may have limited, supervised, or no contact with one or both birth parents.

      Transferring to a new home and family raises most of the questions and special needs above again. This can be specially stressful if the child hasn't had the time or help to fill their first set of special needs.

      Some foster kids are placed with surrogate parents who are ultimately unable to fill the youngster's complex mix of needs. Such adults are often unrecovering Grown Wounded Children who aren't capable of mastering the mix of  foster-parenting challenges despite state assessments, training programs, and social-work assistance.

.     After several months or years, the kids are returned to group homes, and/or may be placed in a new foster home. This often  compounds their shame, distrust, cynicism, and anxieties; and further slows their healthy psychosocial development   

      Kids raised by psychologically-wounded adults (GWCs) start to develop their own wounds in their early years. Infants may have started to form a "bad me" self image (shame), and major distrust of some or all adults. Some develop hyper-fear of abandonment, and/or may invent invisible companions to ease their loneliness (reality distortion).

      Beside food, shelter, and medical care, the overarching immediate and long-tern needs that average foster and adopted kids have are:

  • consistency and security in their physical and social environments; and...

  • learning to recognize and manage their inner pain in a healthy way, vs. with addictions, truancy, gangs or cults, promiscuity, running away, crime, self-abuse, or suicide. Managing inner pain includes grieving major losses (broken bonds)

      And these pre-teens and teens need informed help with...

  • understanding, accepting, and healing their inherited psychological wounds and forgiving their unaware ancestors;; and with...

  • continuing their normal development and education despite all these simultaneous normal and extra needs.

Inadequate Foster-placement Assessments

      Typical public and private foster-care and adoption agencies strive to assess the parenting competence of adults seeking to bring children into their homes. Applicants must pass a set of personal, family, and economic requirements before being legally certified as surrogate parents.

      My 36-year experience as a family therapist suggests that few child-welfare workers and surrogate parents understand the lethal [wounds + unawareness] cycle and it's toxic effects. They also have limited understanding of effective-communication skills and healthy grief, and how to promote both in troubled young kids and their families.

      This means that parenting-competency (child placement) assessments will usually be inadequate, and some to many of these kids' needs (above) will not be filled in their new settings.

      To understand foster and adoptive family dynamics, it's important to know...

  Parents' Motives (Needs)

      Why do some adults adopt or foster other people's kids? Human behavior is caused by constantly trying to reduce current discomforts (fill needs). Each foster or adoptive parent has a unique mix of needs (motives), like these: "I need to...

..._ experience the satisfaction of giving a needy child a good home;"

..._ raise a child though I'm unable to have my own;" or to...

..._ feel like other adults who are parents;" or to....

..._ give my child a sibling;" or I need to...

..._ strengthen my primary relationship;" or to...

..._ distract me from my emptiness / loneliness;" or to...

..._ create a purpose for my life;" or to...

..._ care for an orphaned niece, nephew, or grandchild; or to...

..._ rescue a disadvantaged child; or I need to...

..._ feel that someone needs and loves me; or to...

..._  gain the approval of (someone);" or to...

..._ qualify for a financial subsidy to increase my security;" or to

..._ have something in common with family and friends;" or I need....

..._ to satisfy some other needs (like what, specifically?)..

      Each parent's' mix of needs and priorities will affect how they  treat their adopted or foster child(ren). Option: Rate each of these needs as healthy (+) to unhealthy (-) motives.

      There are many possible stressors in fostering and/or adopting wounded children. What are the least known and most important stressors?

  Summary of Key Challenges

      A "trauma" is any event or process that causes "significant" stress in a person. "Stress" is some mix of anxiety + confusion + hurt + anger + frustration + sadness + guilt + shame + fatigue + despair.

      Minor children separated from both birth parents by death, disability, or legal intervention must adapt to up to five major stressors 

1) birth-parent neglect, abandonment, and abuse for months or years before separation, causing significant psychological wounds: a disabled true Self, and excessive shame, guilts, fears, reality distortions, trust disorders, and an inability to empathize and exchange genuine love. These may have started to cause school, social, and physical health problems.

2) having strangers ("officials") remove the child from their home and family to a new location and alien social environment (e.g. a group home); This relocation causes each child major changes and losses (broken bonds)  and a mix of adaptation needs. Their new adult caregivers may not know and consistently fill the child's mix of concurrent normal and special needs;

3) Months or years later, the child is moved to another alien setting - a foster or adoptive home and family. This causes more major losses and a mix of new adjustment needs; These stressors are specially complex for inter-racial and international child placements.

4) If the new caregivers mistreat the child, s/he may be taken back to a state-run group home or setting, or transferred to another foster home, This creates more losses and adjustment tasks.

      For some foster kids, the mistreatment (neglect, abandonment, and abuse) goes unnoticed by the welfare system. They may "act out" or become "depressed," and be labeled a "problem child."  The real problems are (a) wounded, unaware adults causing  family dysfunction; and (b) the child's unmet needs and increasing psychological wounds

5)  Kids who are not successfully placed in a new family eventually "age out" of the state welfare system, They must live on their own. Most are poorly prepared to do this. and many become homeless, gang members, addicts, criminals, sick, and chronically depressed. The high majority of such young adults are bewildered Grown Wounded Children (GWCs), with little support and few resources.

.      There are many variations of these stressors which can compound the challenges for caregiving adults and kids in each setting. Six of these variations are:

  • legal battles between birth and new parents;

  • being placed in a new culture;

  • learning a new language;

  • attending one or more new schools;

  • integration into a confusing, conflicted stepfamily; and/or...

  • adjusting personal and family identities and roles after legal adoption.

      Pause, breathe, and notice what you're thinking and feeling. How many typical parents, relatives, counselors, teachers, and child-welfare workers know about these overlapping family and personal stressors and what to do about them?

  Suggestions to Surrogate Parents and Supporters

      How can caring adults avoid and master all these simultaneous problems?

All Family Adults and Supporters

__  1) Adopt and keep a long-range (multi-decade) point of view.

__  2) Learn what you need to learn: take these quizzes when your true Self is guiding you;

__  3) Commit to studying and discussing some or all these lessons. Your young people need you to know and teach them these topics!

__  4) Assess yourself honestly for inherited psychological wounds. If you have any, commit to reducing them over time.

__  5) Adopt a family-system point of view in child-care goals and decisions, rather than focusing on individuals or dyads

__  6) Commit to preventing the need for foster care: work patiently to break the toxic inheritance of [psychological wounds + unawareness] in your and others' families. If you don't do this - who will?

__  7) Assess the nurturance level of your extended family and/or your family-service organization. Minor kids needs are best filled in high-nurturance environments!

__  8) Alert child-care providers in your town county, and state to these ideas. This includes lawyers, judges, police, educators, counselors, some medical pros, social workers, churches, and parenting groups 

Before You Foster or Adopt a Child...

      In addition to the suggestions above, choose among these options when your true Self is guiding you. Option - use this list periodically to keep you aware and focused of your parenting. Finish this article before following any of these links.

__  9)  Update or create your family mission statement. Long term, what do you adults want to accomplish together?

__ 10)  Adapt this worksheet to evaluate whether you're ready to parent a  (or another?) child.

__  11)  Study and discuss this summary of kids' normal developmental tasks

__  12)  Read and discuss these ideas on effective parenting

__  13)  Review and discuss these Q&A items; and take this quiz.

__  14)  Discuss and define your family policy on grieving. Are you a "pro-grief" home and family?

\__ 15)  Read and discuss these guidelines for effective communication with minor children

__  16)  Read and discuss these guidelines on effective child discipline.

__  17)  Work twitch other family adults toward effective strategies to mange these three common family stressors

__  18)  If you're in a stepfamily - or may be - patiently study and discuss this online tutorial ("lesson 7"):  http://sfhelp.org/sf/guide7.htm

__  19)  Ask all professionals your working with (e.g. counselors, clergy, social workers, etc) to read this article and to follow these 18 suggestions.

__  20)  If you know or meet other foster or adoptive families, alert their adults to these resources.

+ + +

      Pause, breathe, and reflect. Are you motivated to follow some or all these suggestions?  What are your inner voices saying - and who are they?


      This lesson-6 article aims to alert foster and adoptive parents and child-welfare workers to several realities often omitted in other resources:

  • the silent ancestral legacy of [psychological wounds + unawareness] that can cause significant personal, parenting, and family problems;

  • the value of using a family-systems point of view in foster-child placement and parenting;

  • why some foster-family placement-evaluations are inadequate;

  • what typical; foster kids lose, and how to help them grieve well over time; and...

  • the several possibly-overlapping stressors that typical foster and adopted kids and their families must cope with;

      The article closes with 28 specific suggestions for foster and adoptive family adults and their supporters 

      Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your true Self, or someone else?

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