This question came from a friend who had opened her home to a young woman I’ll call Anna, who was attending a summer program in her community. My friend wanted her guest to be comfortable; she wanted to make sure that some of Anna’s favorite foods were on hand, that she had the information she needed to navigate the public transit system, and that the family’s schedule meshed with Anna’s school schedule.

“When I ask what kinds of snacks she’d like or if there are foods that she really likes or dislikes, she just shrugs and says, ‘Anything is fine.’ When I noticed she didn’t eat any of the cake I had for dinner one night, she apologized that she really doesn’t like nuts all that much. We could easily have had a dessert without nuts. Maybe she’s just trying to be polite but it seems like more than that. It’s confusing not knowing!”

Anna grew up in foster care. She had lived in seven different homes. It seemed that during her tenure in the child welfare system Anna, like so many foster children, had learned either not to ask for what she wanted or had not learned how to tell people what she wanted or needed.
Sometimes foster children don’t actually know what they want or need because no one has taken the time to help them identify their likes and dislikes.

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Image courtesy of Sebastian Garnier.

Telling someone what you want is risky business. Letting others know what’s important exposes you. It leaves you vulnerable to disappointment, but it also leaves you open to all of the feelings that come up when your needs or desires are met.

Suppose Anna had risked telling my friend that she really didn’t like nuts. What if her hostess had ignored or forgotten that information? Would Anna have to eat the cake anyway so as not to embarrass her?
If nuts were banished from the family table during Anna’s visit, would others in the family be annoyed with her? Would she feel guilty for imposing on everyone? Maybe it’s better just to avoid the question.

This is a small and seemingly inconsequential example of the choices foster children make all the time. They choose, whether consciously or unconsciously, just to put their needs and desires aside rather than risk the pain of having them ignored or forgotten. Even worse, sometimes, having them met—leaving them feeling guilty, burdensome, obligated, or overcome with longing for even more gratification.

As for the other player in this interaction, my friend’s reaction is not uncommon. From her perspective, she was just asking for a simple bit of information. She didn’t want to have to ask two or three times.
She didn’t want to have to worry that Anna was not comfortable in her home. She found herself increasingly distressed by what felt to her like a lack of cooperation from Anna.

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Image courtesy of findingtheobvious.

From our conversation, my friend understood that Anna’s reluctance to offer the requested information might be an act of self-protection. She sensed that she had withdrawn a bit from Anna and that she had dampened her earlier enthusiasm about Anna’s visit. She renewed her efforts to be a gracious hostess and make Anna’s stay as pleasurable as possible.

This was only a brief summer stay. Anna was not in a home
with a foster parent whose annoyance might eventually build to the point of her being moved along to a different placement. We don’t know the reasons behind Anna’s reluctance to make her desires known. We do know that this particular self-protective stance makes it difficult for her to engage in the kinds of relationships that would meet her needs and wants.