The following nine qualities (which have been adapted from the work of Linda Katz) are often found in many successful foster and adoptive parents. Sometimes professionals look for these characteristics when they recruit prospective parents. Take the time to note the qualities that you may already have and learn why they are important. Then, strive to acquire or strengthen those you need to work on to help you be a successful foster or adoptive parent.
Successful foster and adoptive parents:
- Are able to find happiness with small steps toward improvement. Rather than focusing on end goals and remaking their children, successful parents see their role as helping their children achieve success in small steps, beginning with daily tasks. These parents live in the present and help their children achieve each measurable task. They do not dwell on the future or pressure themselves or the children to reach some final outcome. They celebrate small successes with their children and help them appreciate the accumulative effect of each effort.
- Refuse to be rejected by their child and are able to delay gratification of parental needs. Successful parents persist in their role as parents in the face of rejection by the child. Children with difficult pasts, especially older children and teens, often push away those who try to get close to them. A successful parent sees this behavior as a survival tactic to prevent any adult from disappointing, hurting, or rejecting them. Successful parents are stubborn, and refuse to accept that the final outcome of their relationship will be rejection by their child. They are also able to put their own needs on hold and postpone the rewards of parenting for weeks, months, and even years. They do not take the initial rejection from the child personally and understand that it has to do with the child’s past disappointments, fears, and traumas. They see themselves as therapeutic parents and are willing to wait out and work through rejection, help the child heal, and slowly build an intimate, trusting relationship.
- Are tolerant of their own ambivalence and/or strong negative feelings. Children from the foster care system—especially older children with special needs— often come to their foster and adoptive families with deep pain from their past, destructive behaviors, and more. These children tend to draw out powerful negative feelings in their foster and adoptive parents—often parallel to what the children themselves feel. Successful foster and adoptive parents are able to feel these negative feelings, process them, and separate out those that are coming from the child. They do not judge themselves harshly for feeling anger, are able to feel anger and not act on it, and know their feelings will pass. These adults are also able to use humor to defuse their reactive emotions and can talk about their feelings with other parents, therapists, or workers.
- Maintain parental role flexibility. One factor distinguishing successful adopters of older children is the ability of one parent to perceive the signs of burnout in another parent and move into the caregiving role while the stressed out parent recovers. An established pattern of role flexibility greatly increases a family’s likelihood for success, as one partner is relieved from absorbing all the emotional battering. Single parents can find similar results when they:
- Build a network of support through membership in a foster or adoptive parent group
- Find friends who can listen and offer informal breaks from parenting responsibilities
- Establish a working relationship with respite care providers who can give them formal parenting breaks
- Have a systems view of their family. Families that tend to label one person as the problem or look for the “good guy” and the “villain” in a situation tend to scapegoat family members . When parents view the family as a system—with complicated interrelated relationships among all members—they tend to look more deeply at reasons behind behavior, sibling difficulties, and interaction with parents, etc., and look for ways improve relationships. These parents are willing to look at how each member affects another and tend to mobilize all their resources to better cope with a new foster or adopted child.
- Take charge of their parental role. Parents who succeed are able to quickly make the transition from a tentative parental stance to full “ownership” of their role as parents and incorporate the child’s many differences and history into their family. Their own comfort in being a parent helps them overcome any unusual circumstances or irregularities and they are able to take charge of the relationship. Just as parents of newborns begin by acting like a parent and then transform into parents, so do successful foster and adoptive parents. Taking charge of the parental role does not mean domination, rather it means taking the initiative for the relationship, setting boundaries and limits, meeting the child’s needs, nurturing, and establishing the groundwork to build intimacy.
- Insist on developing an immediate relationship with the child. Successful foster and adoptive parents of older children know they have a limited time frame to turn things around for the child. They don’t have time to hold back and wait for the relationship to develop. Effective parents are active and do what parents of infants and toddlers do—“they assume control, try to anticipate behaviors, interrupt behavior-spirals early, provide a great deal of praise, positive reinforcement, and physical affection…[they] take the lead in the relationship and are not deterred by the child’s protest or withdrawal” (Jernberg, 1979). These parents can appear intrusive but in a caring way. They make up for lost time and try to establish contact and intrude much like parents of infants do by making eye contact and body closeness to build intimacy and trust.
- Practice self-care and use humor. Parents who master a balanced lifestyle, including incorporating self-care strategies and humor into their daily lives, are able to establish a healthy pattern and refuse to accept martyrdom as the price of parenting. Regular evenings and occasional weekends away help parents gain perspective, regroup, and come back to the family with renewed energy.
- Operate in an open versus closed family system. When families decide to foster or adopt children with special needs, they need to be open to accepting help from a number of sources: other parents, teachers, therapists, social workers, etc. Successful families see receiving help from people outside the family unit as an asset instead of a threat.