By Nathan Ross
When I first went to college, I majored in theater with the desire to be a television and film actor. During those three years, a professor told us that, “actors perform how they practice in every rehearsal.” She said this to remind us that it was just as important to show up to rehearsals with the same energy and focus that we expect to have during the actual performance, lest we provide lackluster or underwhelming performance. With that in mind, we would begin our two- to eight-hour rehearsals, running the same lines dozens of times until we delivered them masterfully. Though I did not know it at the time, this statement would become one that I would recognize as being just as important in everyday life as when rehearsing for “Tartuffe” or “Night of the Living Dead.”
Due to my personal and professional experiences, I am often asked “What do children and teens need from foster, adoptive and kinship families to heal?” Of course, it would be great if this question could be answered with a singular statement, one requiring no explanation. I imagine that if you are reading this article, you have come to understand that the complexities of the human experience are not so easily answered by a singular, easy statement. Still, if I had to give a one-sentence answer to this complicated question, I would say that young people in and from the child welfare system need safe spaces to practice how they are expected to perform within society.
When I entered the foster care system at 10 years old, I was jaded and guarded. Before foster care, I lived with my mom and four siblings, but, tragically, two of my brothers died from significant abuse. Suddenly, I found myself trying to make sense of everything that happened in my first 10 years of life while also figuring out how to move forward. At that time, I thought I knew for sure was that I could navigate life by myself. From my perspective, I was severely betrayed by adults, and I didn’t want to experience that level of hurt, anger and despair again. The best way that I could avoid such feelings was to emotionally distance myself from anyone who could cause me harm. Fortunately, I had consistent supports during my foster care journey and learned, though unconsciously, the value of having a safe place to heal and practice. After a brief honeymoon phase when I learned about the many rules of the Missouri foster care system, I began to test the resolve of my foster parents. I pushed boundaries, displayed unresolved and unbridled emotions, and tried everything I could to hurt them and make them feel inadequate.
Throughout all of that, my foster parents continued to show up in ways that would set me on track for adulthood. With every attempt I made at causing chaos, they provided structured discipline while also integrating empathetic understanding. They allowed me to feel and think about everything that I had bottled up while holding me to realistic expectations, and setting standards for me that I did not know were possible. Being with them provided me with my first experiences of healthy conflict resolution and consequences. I had to practice owning my mistakes and making amends, and I was provided with opportunities to talk about the responses and actions I did not like and having my feelings validated.
Within this home, I got to practice building social skills with peers and improving my academic performance instead of coasting through life. All these experiences increased the sense of mastery over my life and started to bring my walls down. I found myself increasingly invested in my relationships and I wanted to make those who were important to me proud.
Eventually, I moved to another family where I was adopted, but my former foster parents and their lessons remained an integral part of my life and were the building blocks necessary for me to thrive as I became a member of the Ross family. As a Ross, I was provided with many more opportunities to safely experience forming and maintaining relationships while also navigating social, academic and workforce situations. These experiences allowed me to appreciate the importance of discipline and hard work as well as the joy of being patient and seeing the results of my labor. Whether it was receiving my first paycheck, winning a school competition, or mending an important relationship, each experience prepared me for the ups and downs of adulthood and provided me with reference points through uncomfortable or tough situations.
Practicing over and over again was painful at times and led to frustrating and disappointing moments. I experienced rejection and failure, and occasionally I thought I was useless. But with each defeat or setback, I was able to regroup and try again thanks to the support of my family and friends, which increased my self-esteem and resilience. That is what our young people from foster care need: the ability to practice, practice and practice some more even through frustration, anger and a desire to give up. Without the guidance of my support system, which wouldn’t allow me to apathetically go through life, I would not have gained the skills and developed the confidence necessary to go out into the world and feel like I was giving my very best.
So, if you are reading this article and wondering what you can do for a young person in your care, I would tell you to provide them with opportunities to practice. Practice forming and maintaining relationships. Practice experiencing conflict and resolving it without fear of abandonment or rejection, moving away from the notion that when times get tough, it is best for people to just go their separate ways. Allow them opportunities to practice earning their own money and saving up for the latest “must-have” item. Practice making bad decisions and experiencing the consequences of those decisions in a safe environment. And practice understanding that setting boundaries and limits is a healthy part of caring for oneself and others.
As a caregiver, you are tasked with a very important and equally difficult task: to coach your child along — sometimes, kicking and screaming — as they gain the skills necessary to live their best life. It is absolutely challenging, and sometimes the desire to cut ties and move on is extremely tempting. But when you stay in it and allow them to safely make it to the other side, you have helped change a life. I know that I am forever grateful for the people who did not give up on me or allow me to give up on myself, even when those options were the easiest. I hope that you will be the person a hurt child will be able to say the same thing about as they reflect on their lives and give thanks to the people who never gave up.
Nathan Ross is a therapist and national child welfare consultant who uses his life, educational and professional experiences to improve the foster care system. Ross entered foster care when he was 10 after significant abuse, neglect and insufficient child welfare interventions resulted in two of his siblings dying. Once in care, Ross received a wealth of supports and services that allowed him to heal and thrive, and he was later adopted. In the last 10 years, Ross has worked with young people to craft their stories and use their experiences to impact system changes, including passing the Foster Children’s Bill of Rights in Missouri. He later developed and launched a transition program for young adults transitioning out of foster care staffed by foster care alumni and used a no-eject, self-determination model of support. As the founder of Resilience Recognized, he continues to use his knowledge to help agencies, organizations and states identify and develop programs and policies that focus on authentically engaging youth, placing them at the center of decision making and recognizing their inherent strengths.