I was in 3 foster homes before I turned 12; my mom was single and schizophrenic. I didn’t realize how rare it is for foster kids to overcome shame, powerlessness, and poverty until I wrote a cultural self-identity paper for school (I’m getting my MSW at UBC).
Growing up, I was neglected, on welfare, and getting food from the food bank all the time. My mom was in and out of the hospital, and we moved every few months. When I was 15, I called Social Services and went to live with my grandma – which was when the bulimia started.
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But I still managed to lead a pretty good life! I earned two undergraduate degrees from the University of Alberta, taught in Africa for three years (probably the most exciting time of my life!), married a great guy, and bought a beautiful home overlooking the ocean in Vancouver. I’m a graduate student, I earn a living as a freelance writer and blogger, and I’ve traveled to different countries almost every year of my adult life.
On my paper my prof wrote, “The only thing that might strengthen the paper even more is a discussion of what concrete things helped you achieve the things you achieved. How did you gain enough social and cultural capital to reach your goals? What supports did you have – emotionally, financially, structurally?”
I got 96% on that assignment – here it is: How to Write a Self-Identity Paper for Social Work Class. And, I decided to write an article to describe how I overcame the shame, powerlessness, and stigma of being a foster kid. I hope this will help other foster kids to achieve their own goals!
6 Ways to Overcome Shame and Powerlessness for Foster Kids
Mourn for what you lost or never had – because it’s not fair
I hated having a sick, mentally ill mother. In my article about coping with difficult parents, I describe how hard it was to grow up with a schizophrenic mom. Not only is it difficult at home, it’s painfully shaming at school, work, and with friends. It’s horrible to be in foster care, even if the homes or good. It’s devastating to be taken away from your mom, home, pets, and family even if you’re neglected or abused at home.
It’s not fair that I didn’t get to have a dad, a stable home, or a school that I went to for more than a year. I have nothing from my childhood, because my mom kept walking away from our apartments. In counseling, I learned that I need to mourn what I lost and what I never had.
Express your feelings in creative ways
I always hid the fact that I was a foster kid, and pretended it didn’t matter. But now I know it’s healthier to accept that it hurt me, that I feel ashamed and embarrassed. If you’re a foster kid, you need to acknowledge and express your feelings somehow – perhaps by journaling, painting, drawing, doing sports, writing music or poetry, etc. I always kept a diary, and wrote how I felt about everything. I think that helped me overcome my feelings of shame and powerlessness.
In my counseling class, I learned that if you don’t accept or understand your emotions, you’ll make dumb, self-destructive decisions in life. You’ll react to stuff instead of thinking things through. If you want to be powerful, you need to get in touch with your feelings.
Take all the help you can get
I had a Big Sister from Big Brothers/Big Sisters, and I loved spending time with her. She was healthy, happy, and fun. She made me feel good about myself – and I let her. Now, I’m a Big Sister myself!
If you’re a foster kid, you need to accept help from the people around you. Youth workers, social workers, therapists, teachers, group home leaders, foster parents, guidance counselors – they are genuinely trying to help you overcome the shame, stigma, and powerlessness of being in foster care. When somebody offers to help you, take it! I only had a Big Sister for less than a year, but it was enough to change how I saw myself.
Be willing to change how you see yourself
I thought I was weird, different, disadvantaged, poor, and not as good as everyone else. Social workers call it “internalized oppression” – you begin to see yourself the way others see you. In my case, I guessed that others saw me as all those negative things because I was an embarrassed, powerless foster kid. It never occurred to me that others see me as smart, funny, resilient, impressive, valuable, lovable, kind, witty, motivated, and enthusiastic!
Now, I call myself “the adventurous writer” because that’s how I see myself. I like myself and I love my life. What will it take for you to say the same about your self and your life?
Ask for help achieving your goals
I never asked for help because I thought I was all alone. Actually, I isolated myself from others because I felt so ashamed and different. Even now, I tend to hang on the edges of the crowd and leave before people can leave me. I hate saying good-bye, so I don’t like to get attached to people.
It wasn’t until I was about 30 years old that I asked for help achieving my goals. I went to a counselor, and said I want to get married one day but don’t know how to be in a relationship. My counselor helped me grieve the bad childhood I had, celebrate the strengths I gained by being in foster care, and learn how to relate to other people in healthy ways.
I still make lots of mistakes, but I’m not the powerless, helpless, ashamed, stigmatized foster girl I was before.
Start taking control of your life – every little step counts!
If you’re a foster kid, what is one way you can take control of your life today? I’m talking about healthy ways to be powerful – things that aren’t just good for you, but are good for the people and things around you.
Have you made bad choices and hurt people? Read 10 Reasons to Forgive Yourself for the Bad Things You Did.
Whether or not you can think of one way to overcome shame and powerlessness, I encourage you to read Growing Up in the Care of Strangers: The Experiences, Insights and Recommendations of 11 Former Foster Kids. It’ll help you see you’re not alone, and you CAN achieve whatever goals you set for yourself.