Reunification is a word every foster family knows. It is the goal of foster care to bring biological families back together, or reunify, if possible.
This happened at our ranch last week. My sister recently moved to the country and worked to put up fences this year to take her horse, Peppy, home. We had been “fostering” Peppy and planned to for as long as she needed. In my mind I thought of the wonderful therapeutic work that could be done with the families I choose to serve, foster and adoptive families, when Peppy returned home. It could help my future clients to work through their issues with grief, loss, and attachment when separated. Well I was wrong and it turns out maybe I was the one who needs the lesson? I am a foster parent on this journey as well trying to balance loving someone fully yet knowing they will leave. This foster care experience really throws this lesson at you but really all parents (and people) have to balance this very same thing eventually. We don’t know how many days we have to love a child, parent, friend... or horse. We have to fully and wholeheartedly love who we have in front of us knowing that we will lose them someday.
This is actually a skill of healthy attachment. Attachment isn’t just being right with someone all the time. You aren’t fully attached if you can’t feel safe being apart. In my training through Natural Lifemanship, the model of therapy we use at Wholehearted Herd Counseling, this is called connection through detachment. If you think about it this makes sense that you don’t have a healthy and secure attachment if you can’t be apart and trust that the other person won’t do something to hurt you or never return. We develop this as young children as we venture farther from them and return to their loving embrace. We learn to feel safe doing both. Our kiddos from hard places can have issues with this and it can show up like fear at bedtime, going to school, or even being in a room without you. They did not get a chance to develop that attachment dance that wires our brain for connection and mental health. This is part of the restorative work we can do as foster parents! This is why we need to have earned secure attachment for ourselves because we can't give what we don't have. In my experience as a therapist the way that a parent has come to terms with their own attachment and history can have the biggest impact on their children.
How can this principal of being attached when apart apply to reunification in foster care? In ideal situations birth parents could allow phone calls, visits, and letters from former foster parents. We also help the children in our care learn the skills of connection through detachment by encouraging visits, conversations, and having pictures of their birth family in the home while we have them. When they return home they will have been connected to them and will have learned the skills of connection when apart from people they love. We can feel connected when apart by thinking about the next visit or writing them what is happening at home. I definitely will plan to visit Peppy at my sister’s home. Our foster daughter also had the idea of video chatting him which we did this past weekend. When Peppy heard our voices he went to look for us! It brought up sad and happy emotions for me. Peppy was also maintaining the connection in his heart too! Unfortunately for Peppy’s long-term friend Jack (pictured at the gate) he is not able to see him again and said his “goodbyes” to the trailer as it pulled away. That was equally sad to see. As nice as phone calls and visits are, we aren’t always promised the ability to have contact with our former foster kiddos who return, like Jack and Peppy. That doesn’t mean we can’t have connection. Connection is very much a internal sense. That is why this model of therapy working with the horses is so powerful. You and your child can develop a felt sense for what connection is in your own body. Thoughts, memories, and prayers connect us as well. I won’t pretend that detachment is easy for me either. I struggle to stay connected when I am apart. I can tell you that my own personal work with the horses has helped me since learning and doing this therapy work. When working with the horses you get to practice the attachment dance and work on where it may have went wrong for you to learn a new way. This leads to happier relationships, deeper connections, and more wholehearted families. Email for more information or to try it out for yourself! firstname.lastname@example.org
Wholehearted Herd Counseling, LLC provides trauma therapy for children and teens and family therapy focused on attachment for adoptive and foster families with the help of horses. Wholehearted Herd Counseling, LLC is an equine-assisted therapy service in the central Wisconsin, Wausau, and Antigo areas.