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July/August 1999 - Volume 2 - Issue 6

Picking Your Battles
By Jo Ann Wentzel

Foster kids rarely have just one area where problems exist. Most kids, in fact, have several bad behaviors to correct, issues they must overcome, and goals they must reach. The foster parent sees their job as mender, fixer, or repair person. We are never content to just let these issues resolve themselves, as rightly so. We arm ourselves with ideas, solutions, and prayer to battle the various problems.

One thing wrong with this strategy is the fact that we attack on all fronts, instead of focusing on just one enemy at a time. Foster parents must pick their battles carefully. There are two basic reasons that this is best. Number on is the fact that kids cannot usually successfully work on a whole array of problems at one time. The second reason is for the sake of the foster parent. You will burn out too quickly if you don't reserve your strength.

But you say, these kids have soooo many problems. They need so much help. You count off the problems on your fingers, but before you get to your toes, slow down. Try to remember it took many years for these problems to develop. You cannot fix this kid by Friday. You will need to pick your battles.

This assessment to decide which war you wage may take a bit of time. It is also hard to do when you still don't know the child well. Until you truly connect with a kid, you must rely on first impressions and what you have actually witnessed.

It is necessary to prioritize this child needs when deciding which behaviors to conquer, and help him meet challenges necessary for a functional life. We developed a system. First, list all the major problems. Put things in perspective, this is usually not going to include things like he does not make his bed, or he forget to brush his teeth. If these are this kid's most pressing problems, pat yourself on the back, give him a big hug, and be content that you are so lucky. I'm thinking more in the terms of items like he is violent toward others, he uses pot, he steals, or he cannot stay in school. You know- the kinds of issues foster parents deal with every day.

Next, start to prioritize them. I tend to divide them into the following categories.

Behaviors, activities, or problems that:

  1. Are dangerous to other's well being.
  2. Are dangerous to the foster child's physical well being.
  3. Are dangerous to other's mental/emotional well being.
  4. Are dangerous to the foster child' mental/emotional well being.
  5. Are against the law.
  6. Interfere with the foster child's education..
  7. Interfere with the running of the household.
  8. All other negative behaviors, activities, or problems that you need work on.

Start at the top and work your way down. Work on one problem to its solution before tackling another one. The only time you should break this rule is when you are getting nowhere after months and months of work then focus on another problem for awhile, going back to the first after the new one is solved.

You may see this list differently than others do and change the arrangement of priorities. Even foster parents have pet peeves, pet projects, or their own things that drive them crazy. I remember one foster mom who took really tough kids. The only ones she would refuse were those with blue hair. Drove her crazy. We can laugh about such a silly thing, but if the child is where you can see them, day after day and a little thing sets you off, you will be unable to parent that kid effectively. I believe foster parents should always have the option to decide if a child will fit into their home and lifestyle. There are so many kids out there; we should be able to accommodate mos parents. I also believe their requests should be reasonable, blue hair is probably not a real valid excuse, but I can understand it just the same.

I feel any behavior that can lead to death or injury for anyone must be number one on your list. That battle has a high chance of casualties if you do not attack there. One battle at a time, unless the problem will prove to be a small, little skirmish. Kids can work effectively on correcting one behavior. They will be more successful if they believe this is the one thing that will please you (and shut you up). When you approach with a long list in hand, they don't fight, they don't surrender, and they just play dead. They don't hear you or even care what you are saying. It is impossible to redirect them. It is impossible to implement a plan or develop a procedure. They have turned you off, and they will not be part of your little war since they are sure they cannot win. Make it easier on them by giving them one front to battle at a time. Then, everyone wins

To all foster parents who have taken up arms to battle for our kids, I commend you.

1999, Reprinted with permission from Jo Ann Wentzel, mother of 3, grandmother of 5 and foster mother to over 75 children. Experienced as a GAL, surrogate parent, mentor, author of a book to be published on CD rom soon and now providing consultation services ( ), she continues to be devoted to raising and supporting those raising children. Original source for article: The Foster Parent Community website


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