Welcome back to Blogville, nice to see you again. I’m sipping a chai latte today as I find it comforting. What is your beverage of choice today as you visit?
I was walking in my neighbourhood one day this summer and I came upon a big evergreen tree and I recalled that its owners light it up every Christmas season. Then I noticed that the string of lights was still there even though it was June and I felt the urge to take a picture for some reason. I guess I just felt drawn to the image.
At first I thought I was affected by that pre-decorated tree as a symbol, or marker of the passage of time for us all, when we get to an age where it is too cumbersome or too dangerous to put up and take down decorative lights every year. Ironically, as trees age they grow taller, and stronger, while as home owners age, they often lose strength and dexterity and should maybe reconsider climbing an icy ladder leaning against a tree in a snow bank. Noticing that they were leaving the lights up all year, hidden among those prickly branches, was indeed a stark reminder of the passage of time, and it made me a little sad. For some reason, instead of deleting it, I simply filed away that picture.
Some weeks later I was waiting for some of my grandchildren at their school bus stop and I noticed a second big evergreen tree, also with lights hidden in the branches, disconnected from any power, but there, waiting. So when I came home I started scrolling through my photos looking for the tree picture I had taken earlier this summer. Suddenly I knew what the trees actually meant to me! I realized that they were more symbolic to me than I initially realized. Those trees, with their hidden lights reminded me of children and youth currently in, or from, foster care. Suddenly I became aware that this symbolism may be important and relatable when talking about fostering, adopting, providing kinship, and customary care, or any alternative care really.
Children and youth in care often develop a thick skin, like the bark of a tree, to protect themselves. They develop attitudes, not unlike prickly needles of trees, in order to protect the softer, more easily bent branches, like their feelings. Just like some saplings, children and youth in care may have suddenly been pulled out of one environment and placed in another. This may have been an unexpected, emergency kinship or foster care placement. Attempts to thicken their skin and bring forth protective attitudes is usually a coping mechanism for helpless children or youth to help them feel like they have some control in the chaos. After all, the more prickly the needles on the tree, the harder it will be for you to see through to the unplugged, powerless string of lights woven around the tree trunk.
Beneath those prickly branches, if given a chance, is something beautiful and magical, just like a string of lights hidden in a Christmas tree. I sometimes feel that helping a child or youth fit into a foster family and/or adoptive family can be like trudging through deep snow, (navigating the child welfare system), trying to find the best Christmas tree. One must move the branches slowly and carefully as some trees have layers of ice and snow protecting them that will drop on you in an effort to make you leave them alone. Please, do not let that tough exterior deceive you. Once you put that tree on your sleigh, take it home and let its branches begin to thaw, you will usually find that one teeny, tiny, sparkle that lets you know there are more beautiful lights inside to be discovered. You are just going to have to work really hard to find them.
I believe that sometimes, in the beginning of new relationships, it is enough just to stand side by side, ‘batten the hatches’, and protect children and youth as much as one can through the storm of being in care, or having been in care. So, to begin with, simply bring that tree in, put it in a sturdy stand, and start looking for why the tree lights are hidden and disconnected from their power. Sometimes it seems that for every light you find, another layer of ice thickens, or a needle grows bigger and sharper to try to keep you out. Don’t let that stop you from finding those shining lights! Trust me, it will be worth it!
Children and youth often respond more to actions than words and the best action is always in being there and your willingness to listen. Sometimes, saplings are planted and replanted so many times it makes it difficult for the roots to accept the nutrients from the new soil and will require a little more planning and effort. Sometimes you have to drag your belief in the child or youth’s worthiness around with you like a pile of soil, and a bucket of water, always ready to nurture! Many times that child or youth will stomp on that pile of soil and dump the bucket of water because they don’t feel worthy of nurturing. You must be ready to accept the child or youth, if not their behaviour, for who they are, what they mean to your family, who you believe they can be, and what they can accomplish.
Along with your pile of soil, your bucket of water, and your belief in the child or youth’s ability to cope and accept your nurturing, there are many tools that can help you to safely empower the beautiful lights inside of that tree. However, sometimes you do not have all those tools at hand. You many need to trudge and trudge through very deep snow until you find just the right tools. You may need someone to help guide you safely through the snow, someone to help you uncover the right tools, or even someone to just help you pull the sleigh. You can help children and youth reconnect their power by plugging in the right services, after all, not all of us are electricians!
As I said, my experience has shown that, as a defence mechanism, children and youth in or from foster care are often trying to make themselves appear bigger and stronger than they might be feeling, so they may present a prickly front just like those big evergreen trees! These children and youth have usually been through a trauma and are likely to be in self-protection mode, fight or flight. Foster parents are often the first to notice the little lights buried deep inside the children or youth in their care. Workers and counsellors can sometimes see through the branches as well and find more of those little lights. Looking past the prickly front, the thick branches, and the gnarly bark one can usually find the lights hidden within! The next step is recognizing that these little lights need to be attached to a power source, usually by belonging to a family, often an adoptive family, in order to fully shine!
If you are a fostering family, you will have many children and youth come through your doors. Some will fit the exact spot you hope for them, while others cannot fit, no matter how hard everyone tries. People struggle to admit it, but sometimes the reality is that this person just doesn’t fit with that specific foster or adoptive family despite all the supportive efforts but, given the chance, may be able to find the perfect spot in another family. Have you ever had a plant that looked wilted and sad no matter how much water you gave it or how much soil you added? Then you discovered that the plant just needed to be moved to where it would get the best light to meet its needs and it began to grow and thrive. Turns out, it just needed to find the right spot.
If you are considering adoption, make sure that you do your research, and that you take courses about trauma and attachment! In fact, take all the courses you can get about merging a child or youth into your family, and becoming their ‘right spot’. In addition, inform yourself about your community resources and how to refer yourself or be referred. Your future as a parent is worth it!
Thank you for your visit to read this blog. As always, I look forward to reading your comments about the blog. I continue to welcome emails for those who might prefer a less public forum. Please send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org