I have only been a licensed foster parent for a few years, so it can feel strange to share my experiences when I know there are countless people out there who know way more than me. But regardless, I feel that sharing stories is important. Especially on the topic of foster care. In my mind, the more information that is out there will help others decide if they want to take the brave leap into the foster care world.
Just last night I watched the movie, “Instant Family” for the third time. I love this movie and I highly recommend it for any adult to watch - even if you have zero interest in becoming a foster parent.
I feel like this movie did a great job portraying a variety of scenarios and hardships that are common in the world of foster care. Of course, this is a movie and the characters are played by actors, so it’s not real, but I think they really did their best to make it accurate while also entertaining.
Here are my thoughts on some parts of the movie that stuck out to me in particular:
1) Tantrums are REAL. These are not your average I’m-a-pissed-preschooler fits. These are hardcore emotions that have spun out of control because that child’s life has spun out of control. I think the movie did a good job of showing the chaos, the noise and the mess. But in my experience, the tantrums have been far more physical. The children I have had in my home have resorted to hitting, punching, kicking, headbutting, scratching, ANYTHING to get the point across to me that they are sad, angry, frustrated and out of control. And most importantly they wanted me to know that I AM NOT THEIR MOM.
2) Nighttime meltdowns are not so easy to soothe. In the movie, there is a scene where the little boy is crying in his bed, maybe from a nightmare of some kind. The parent spends maybe 15 seconds trying to comfort him and he falls back to sleep. This may be a reality for some families, but for the kids that I have had in my home, the feelings that came with nighttime were serious. The heartbreak and fear run so deep. Having had a difficult biological baby, I thought I knew how to comfort children but this experience was an eye opener for sure. There are no quick fixes in foster care. These kids need more patience, love and grace than you could ever imagine.
3) "Parentification" of the oldest child is a painful reality of sibling groups in foster care. The way that Lizzy feels obligated to keep her younger siblings safe and cared for is all too common among foster children. In many of these situations, the parents were not able to care for the kids so the oldest child had to step up and act like the parent. This is a level of pressure and stress that no child should have to experience.
4) Non-foster care parents may say things that are naive or even offensive. In the movie, there were instances where foster children were referred to as “damaged goods” or biological children were referred to as “real kids”. Using phrases like these are hurtful, but unfortunately, common. I have spoken to many people who say they would consider being foster parents but want to have their “own” kids first. Regardless of DNA, age, race, behavior, or circumstance, if a child is in your care, you better treat them like your own. It may not always feel like they are “yours” but that is for you to feel on your own or in the safety of a conversation with another adult who you completely trust. Those are not feelings to share openly with children. I remember several times that strangers would ask me “Are they all yours?” when we had two foster children. All that does is make our kids feel self conscious and even more ostracized than they already do. When we went through training to become foster parents, we learned which words and phrases are helpful or which are hurtful. Even if you have good intentions, the child only hears your words and sees your actions. Intentions don't necessarily matter.
5) There is usually a honeymoon stage. For one of our placements, the honeymoon stage was about 24 hours. But like the movie, some stages can last several weeks. Children may be on their best behavior as they are getting used to living with you or trying to “figure you out”. This may not be encouraging, but I typically expect things to be super difficult and then I am pleasantly surprised if we have good days...or even hours.
6) The panic of reunification is something I have only experienced once. The children we had with us for one placement were so eager to get back with their biological mom. She is a wonderful woman and she loves her kids very much. The visits seemed to always go well, even if the behavior in between visits was awful. But when it finally came time to reunite, the oldest was panicky. He wanted to make sure I had his mom’s phone number. He wanted to know when we would see each other again. It was heartbreaking, because to be honest, I had no idea if we ever would see each other again. And this was a GOOD situation. This was a case where the biological parents did their absolute best to get their children back as soon as they could. Even with a “best case scenario”, there was so much heartbreak and confusion.
7) Increased visits with biological families cause increased bad behavior at the foster home. Often, as a case nears reunification, the visits that the kids have with their biological families become more frequent and longer. On one hand, this is great because this means a family is getting closer and closer to being put back together. But on the other hand, this is confusing for the foster kids who have finally settled into a new routine with their foster family. Any disruption in routine is hard for kids, regardless of if they are in the foster care system. So for a foster kid to start to feel a sense of security or at the very least, predictability in schedule, it throws them off to have that changed up.
8) One of the most important parts of the movie was when they showed a set of foster parents who had a daughter adopted out of foster care. They talked about how she was still in and out of rehab, but the point is she is putting the work in to get healthy. She had all of the odds stacked against her in life, so for her, health and happiness is going to always be work. I loved that they included this because "happy endings" aren't real, or at the very least, they aren't just happy. The reality is the effects of trauma are long lasting.
Yes, being a foster parent is hard. You go through a roller coaster of emotions, sometimes on a daily basis. But it is always important to remember that the feelings you are experiencing as a potentially mature adult, are nothing compared to the experiences of that child who does not have the ability to process even a fraction of what they have experienced.
Overall, I think “Instant Family” is a great movie to watch if you want to get a glimpse into the world of foster care. No movie or story is all-inclusive. Everyone’s story is different. But I hope that this has answered some questions for you.
If you want to learn more about foster care, ask me! I would love to talk about the many ways you could help foster families.