Our sense of optimism and the capacity to hope are rooted in the first months of life. When infants are fed when they are hungry, comforted when they are distressed, changed when they are wet or soiled, gently rocked to sleep when they are tired, and greeted with a smile when they awaken, they learn that the world is a pretty good place. Fortunately, the world just needs to be “good enough,” because, of course, not every day or night is smooth, there are no perfect parents, and babies are not equally responsive.
When babies’ needs are met day after day, month after month, they get progressively better at letting people know what they want or need. In turn, their parents and other caregivers become better at reading their increasingly subtle signals.
Optimistic children have a sense of confidence about the future. Because they trust that the world will treat them well, they are not afraid to hope and dream. They are also not afraid to work hard to get what they want. When their plans fail—when their hopes are dashed—they have the confidence to pick themselves up and try again.
When life does not begin so well, babies do not learn to hope. If their needs and wants are ignored or their care is misguided, they do not develop a sense of confidence that the world will care well for them. They become pessimistic about the future. They have no reason to hope that things will improve or that tomorrow or next week will be brighter. Without the expectation that their efforts will be rewarded, children do not learn to plan for ways to get their needs met and to work hard for what they want and need.
Sadly, life often does not begin well for children in the foster care system. For many complicated reasons—some stemming from the environment, such as poverty, or homelessness; some arising from the individual, such as mental and physical illness, or addiction—their parents are unable to care for them. Some infants are placed with a family who will eventually adopt them and give them the kind of consistent loving care that allows them to build confidence and learn to hope. Others are not so lucky; they are moved from one home to another, often with periodic stays with their biological parents, in the futile hope that the family can be permanently reunited.
When children’s earliest lives are filled with uncertainty and inconsistent care, they shut down, withdrawing into themselves rather than exploring the world or reaching out for help. They become emotionally numb and fearful of relationships. After all, what is the point of hoping if you are certain that you will be disappointed?
So many of the foster youth who are referred to A Home Within for psychotherapy enter their therapists’ offices too scared to hope that this relationship might be different. Some children approach therapy angrily, actually or virtually challenging their therapists to leave them alone. This anger usually masks fear—better to push someone away than to hope for help and be left behind once again. Others don’t engage because they are convinced that this therapist will leave just like all the rest; others are silent because they are afraid to believe that this therapist might really listen.
Human beings are fundamentally social animals who, at the deepest level, crave relationships, even if it takes a very long time to transform fear into hope. One of our therapists told us about her beginning work with “Rosa,” who came regularly to her weekly sessions, even though it took nearly ten months before she found the courage to make steady eye contact and begin meaningful conversations. Fortunately for Rosa, her therapist ignored a colleague who suggested that she should end treatment after a few weeks because Rosa wasn’t making progress. Instead she followed the original mission statement of A Home Within, determined to be available “for as long as it takes.”
The therapists who volunteer their time through A Home Within are wonderful and generous people who offer many things to foster youth—patience, thoughtful listening, caring, stability, and kindness, just to begin the list. They also know how very, very frightening it can be to trust enough to begin to hope. They keep hope alive for children who are too scared to hold hope for themselves.
I hope that you will help the therapists who offer so much to our most vulnerable children.
By Toni Heineman