Would you ever withhold water from your child? How could your child thrive and grow without water? Water is essential to life. And yet, we treat something else that is essential to life as if it can be withheld. I challenge you to think of this as if it is as essential to the internal development of the child just as water is essential to the body. It has taken me a long to time to realize this. Laughter and play are as essential to the child as they are to you. Yes, you.
Caring for high needs children can be traumatic for the parent(s) and the family. As Nancy Thomas (www.attachment.org) has written and spoken about, children with attachment disorders have a way of sucking the joy and laughter out of a home. Would you let someone move into your home and turn off the water source? And yet, slowly, often over several weeks or years, caring for high needs children seems to have a way of isolating a family and slowly shutting down the joy, laughter and play within a home. We, as their foster parents, become tired of feeling like we need to explain the child’s behaviors, or why they are not able to be picked up by a friend and taken to an activity. We learn quite quickly that it is easier to avoid these situations than it is to deal with them.
It is possible that one day, if we are not careful, we will look up and find ourselves isolated and lacking in laughter. We can physically live without play or laughter, though we cannot thrive internally without play and laughter in the home. And guess what? Neither can the children we care for. Now, I know it can be difficult to “reward” bad behavior…but, I challenge you to think of this concept differently. Is water a reward? No, obviously not. Laughter and play, like water, are essential for both you and the child. Laughter and play should not be held hostage from a child any more than water should, especially if the child self-sabotages.
If you constantly remove the experience of fun, laughter and play for that child, you are setting them up for failure (by giving constant consequences that are not balanced out with fun). Play grows us and (cue the dramatic sound effects) attaches us. Dramatic sound affects because, what would a child possibly fear doing? Attaching to us. Either out of fear of us hurting them in the long run, being left, or even because it may feel like they are being disloyal to their family by liking us. If they stay in constant trouble, they can keep that fun and bonding away. It is up to you as the foster parent to ensure that they do attach and bond because it is the lack of attachment that causes a lack of remorse and empathy. Play and laughter build the bond between parent and child and build empathy and caring in both the parent and child.
Now, I’m not saying that “Suzy” should be able to play on the Xbox after having a horrendous attitude or ditching school. However, the two of you can still find a way to smile and bond that day. You still need to be a foster parent and rise to the occasion to making sure the child has their water. It is essential. It is essential for the child to have love, bonding and play. If you stay angry at the child, again, you have just enabled the self-harming mechanism, the “keep me at a distance” mechanism of self-protection. Have boundaries, have expectations and have consequences, though just as purposely, I dare you to have laughter.
I challenge you to create at least one fun activity per day that is random to the child (because knowing about it in advance can give them time to sabotage it). Don’t worry; this can be as easy as turning up the radio while you wash dishes and dancing in the kitchen. It can be hopping in the car on a Saturday morning to drive out to the lake to go for a walk and skip stones. It can be pulling out some paints and painting a rock. But, it should be experienced together. Let’s face it; deep down (or not so deep down) you know you need this too. So push them on a swing, go throw rocks in the river, or take the dog for a walk. On a separate calendar pen in an idea for an activity that would be about 15 minutes of something fun for each day of the week, or jot down a list of ideas on a note to put someplace where you will see it often, and pick something fun from the ideas list. We are spiritual beings every bit as much as we are physical beings, and we need to water the soul as well as the body.
Could you be extreme and really go for it for yourself?
What if you tried to get as many segments of fun per day as you do cups of water per day? That would be 6 to 8 cups of water. What difference would 6 to 8 little bits of fun make in your life today? Try it out! Simply do one 15 minute segment of fun for the child per day. And for you, foster parent, what if you planned 6 – 8 little breaks to water your spirit through the day? Take your joy back. Watch some funny animal videos for a few minutes, text a random/funny note to a friend, throw the ball with the dog, or just go skip some stones on the lake yourself. Water your soul with smiles and laughter. I dare you!