When my foster child threw a tantrum, I realized how important it was to provide a safe emotional space when he was going through trauma.
- When my husband and I fostered siblings, we learned how complicated foster parenting could be.
- When one child threw a tantrum, my husband was able to redirect his attention and calm him down.
- Creating a safe space for them to have big feelings when they were going through trauma was vital.
June 2016 was a crash course in caring for little ones. The first time my foster child, Ethan, had a full-on meltdown, I froze like a deer in headlights. He had found a remote control and was running around the living room with it hanging from his mouth like a cigar. He looked like Baby Boss with hair.
“Ethan, can I please have the remote?” I asked him politely.
He looked me dead in the eye, laughed, and kept running with the drool-soaked clicker still lodged between his lips. So, I reached over and took it from him.
Ethan paused for a second, which felt like a lifetime. His entire face turned red like a cartoon character right before steam shoots out both ears. He threw himself onto the ground and began wailing, rocking from side to side. His chubby little arms waved with wild abandon, bouncing off the rug and then the couch. Suddenly I was evil. Vladimir Putin had nothing on me. My heart heavy with guilt, the critical self-talk kicked in.
Failing to calm Ethan made me feel guilty
“Why are you such a control freak? He just lost his parents, and you won’t even let him destroy a remote?” I realized the absurdity of these thoughts, but my rational mind, hijacked by guilt, was now desperate to comfort the flailing child at my feet.
“Ethan. Buddy. It’s OK,” I said softly, patting his back. Failing to get the response I wanted, I tried reasoning with the 13-month-old. “Remotes don’t taste good. They’ll hurt your belly and cut your gums.” His sobbing intensified. Was this normal? Maybe something was really wrong with him?
When my husband stepped in, I realized he was a baby whisperer
Overhearing Ethan’s meltdown and my ridiculous attempt to defuse the situation, my husband, Jason, whisked into the room, grabbed the nearest toy, a singing Mickey Mouse doll, and began making it dance.
“Hot dog, hot dog, hot diggity dog,” Mickey sang.
Ethan’s tantrum stopped. He began breathing normally again. He looked up at the dancing toy and started laughing. Then he ran over to it, and just like that he was chattering and happy again.
“What kind of voodoo magic was that, Mary Poppins?” I asked Jason.
He looked at me with amusement. “Sometimes kids tantrum when they don’t get their way or they’re bored,” he said. “Pick up a toy. Invite him to play with you. You just want to redirect his focus.”
I’d always known Jason would be an incredible father, but I had no idea I’d married a bona fide baby whisperer.
Redirecting my toddler’s attention resembled my work in politics
Ethan had a few more meltdowns, and every time I heard my Jedi Master’s words echo in my ears: Redirect his focus.
I got the hang of it once I realized managing a toddler’s attention was similar to the redirection work I’d done for years as a press secretary. “Senator Clinton voted against the bill because it would have increased gas prices for New Yorkers … but she has been a longtime supporter of ethanol and other alternative fuels.”
We were teaching our foster children emotional safety
What I didn’t yet have the language for, what Jason was teaching me with his baby whispering, was how to establish the basis for emotional safety. Ethan had displayed big feelings and we didn’t go away. We didn’t react with big feelings of our own. We didn’t meet his yelling with our yelling. At first, I wanted to, but only because I was panicking and didn’t know what else to do.
Intellectually I knew this was normal behavior for any toddler, and I suspected, extremely normal for any child going through trauma and significant change. But I learned during these tantrums that perhaps even more than my obligation to provide a physically safe space for these boys was my obligation to create an emotionally safe space.
I wanted them to know they were loved. I wanted them to know they were safe and to feel every big feeling they had. I wanted them to know that Jason and I weren’t going anywhere.
But in truth, I was the one not feeling emotionally safe, because I couldn’t have the same assurance that they would never leave us.
Excerpted from “Safe: A Memoir of Fatherhood, Foster Care, and the Risks We Take for Family” (Atria Books, January 30, 2024). Reprinted with permission from Atria Books.