He views himself through a distorted lens, as if he were always looking into a fun house mirror. Carl’s sense of self is based on a past history that won’t let go of him. He carries with him burdens that no child should have. Many children in foster care feel the same distortion. Self-esteem is elusive. They cannot see the good inside of themselves because their self-image is clouded by the trauma of the past. There isn’t much adults can say to help. Foster and adoptive parents can tell them, “You are an amazing kid,” or, “People love to be near you,” but they don’t believe this. After all, adults have spoken words before that held no meaning. Bio parents made promises and didn’t follow through. Social workers assured them “soon” they would have a permanent home. Foster homes offered assurances that they wouldn’t have to leave. Words don’t hold weight with our children.
For 10-year-old Carl, his self-esteem hovers somewhere below sea level. He doesn’t see the good like I do. He thinks he has proof of crimes he has committed. Proof holds more weight with Carl than words. He takes responsibility for things that he has “done.” He shoulders the burdens of what happened in his bio-home.
On his asthma: “It’s my own fault I have asthma. When my bio family shut the door to their room to do smoking, I should have left. I would stay close to the door and look under. I was scared to be alone. I must have breathed in the smoke so that’s really my fault.”
On the police pulling his father over: “It was my fault. When you turn around and look at a police car behind you, they pull you over. That’s the law.”
On missing 80+ days of first grade: “It’s my fault that I didn’t wake up in time.”
On being home alone to watch his younger sister: “It’s my fault I got scared and I ran out of the house to find mommy. I was scared to be alone. It’s my fault I left Mary in the house.”
On having no one to take him off of the bus after school in first grade: “It’s my fault. Mommy didn’t get me off of the bus because she didn’t like me.”
On Bio-mom drinking and using: “She didn’t want to get out of bed because she didn’t like me. It’s my fault.”
On being beaten: “It was my fault. I was a bad boy. I needed to learn my lesson.
On being removed at 5-years-old: “It’s my fault.”
No matter how many times we tell him that he is a great kid, he won’t believe us. He feels that his “proof” would show otherwise. We can tell him that his first family had their own struggles but they loved him. We can tell him that they couldn’t control their addictions and neither could he. He was only 5! He can’t believe this. He needs proof.
Kids are such concrete thinkers. In order to build self-esteem, they need a reason that they can see. For Carl, as with so many children, he needs to literally see his own accomplishments. So we put him to work. Not on his own, mind you. The experience is meaningful to Carl if he is working side-by-side with family. We build the relationship while we build his self-esteem. And let’s be honest, Carl is doing most of the work.
My parents have been invaluable in this. When they moved here, he helped unpack the boxes. When it snowed, he helped to shovel their driveway. Now that it is spring, Carl is “landscaping” at the new house with Papa. For this task he was given big responsibilities. Papa was there, side-by-side with Carl, demonstrating ways to safely use the yard equipment. They both wore hats and matching shirts. They raked leaves and burned them in the brick fire pit. Papa took extra time to explain fire safety to Carl. They ate lunch outside on the picnic bench so that they would be responsibly close to the burning leaf pile. It was a day of accomplishment.
Carl learned how to trim a hedge with the electric trimmer. Papa carefully showed him how, hand-over-hand, behind him all the way. They spend an afternoon like this. Grandfather and grandson, working together. Now, Carl has some proof of what he can accomplish. After all, Papa needs his help! Look at how beautiful the yard is! Over time, through actions like this, his narrative is changing.
On a clean and well-kept yard: “Look at how much we got done. I helped! Papa needed me to do all of that! Look at how much work we did. I did that!
On using the flame-thrower (with Papa’s close supervision): “Look at me! I know how to use this. I am very responsible!”
On spending time with his grandparents: “Nana and Papa need me. I can be helpful to them. They love me a lot.”
When he needs proof, we give it to him. I say, “Look at what you’ve accomplished,” and he can, in fact, see it. Every day that he can see his accomplishments, he comes closer to seeing the good in himself.
“What kind of heart do you have, Carl?” I ask him.
“A helping heart,” is his reply.
**Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.
*If you’ve ever thought about foster or adoptive care, I encourage you to start your own adventures.