Friday, March 7, 2014

Fostering Attachment and Love

In our home we have older children that struggled with Reactive Attachment Disorder symptoms and behaviors for some time. In just three years those same children are well-adjusted, attached, and loving members of our family. Someone asked me recently how that could be? How are they healed and just like normal attached kids? RAD is supposed to haunt them for life. Their past cannot be undone.

No, their past will forever be a part of who they are but the hurt can be undone. First with the help of the true Healer, Jesus Christ, and second with consistent modeling and practicing what love really is.

Love does NOT mean you will never get hurt. Unconditional love means you WILL get hurt but you love anyway!

Three things we know about foster kids from hard places:

  1. They have a difficult time trusting or attaching to adults in authoritative parental roles.
  2. They have a difficult time connecting with and understanding their emotions.
  3. They have a difficult time feeling, receiving, giving, or showing love.
As I said, foster children need consistent modeling and practicing what love really is. Due to what we know about them, that they have a difficult time trusting or attaching to adults in authoritative parental roles, even if we, as adults, are consistently modeling love it may not be accepted or trusted simply due to our role.

What now? How do we bypass #1 to begin kindling connections, correct emotions (#2) and love (#3)?

One of the biggest helps God laid on my heart was to continue to foster pets while fostering children. I was a foster parent to hundreds of furry little ones before my heart changed and bled for the hurting human foster children. Together with our children, over the past two years, we have fostered over 35 animals. We have fostered orphaned kitties and puppies, blind, mange-covered and skinny older dogs, and deathly sick cats. Fostering pets has lavished benefits on our family as our children were walking through the grief of their deepest hurts.

Four reasons why foster pets taught my children love better than I can:

  1. Attachments are created to happen with babies, while they are still cute and cuddly.
  2. Pets (Dogs specifically) can make known the hidden emotions of their owners and give them a voice.
  3. Teaches love without segregation, love outside the limits of species, breed, or color. 
  4. Death or adoption of a pet allows us, as parents, to walk with them through their loss. 

1. Attachments are created to happen with cute and cuddly babies.

Before kids, when I worked at an animal shelter, I remember seeing the old, quirky dogs and grumpy cats, filled with fear. I watched them as all with cute and cuddly puppies and kittens got adopted and these older pets were passed by. As a shelter worker these are the animals you spoil, take home on the weekends and hold lovingly, whispering that they are loved, when their time is up. What is it about newness and cuteness that draws a stranger's heart to fall in love. I have to tell you there is no redeeming qualities to a puppy or kitten other than they are SUPER cute! They pee everywhere and all the time, they chew and scratch and they don't listen but when they sleepily purr on your lap or lick your face you are helplessly smitten.


In foster children, empathy, nurture and affection can be kindled with cute babies in a way that cannot be displayed with us as adults. We are that old, quirky dog or grumpy cat waiting for love. We may be modeling and practicing love, wagging our tail and purring but there is just something that is sparked when cuteness is a factor. God designed babies to be cute for a reason!

Trials and hardships with pets, cleaning up messes or feeding and giving with no return on investment, can materialize what unconditional love truly means and looks like. It means loving even when time or money is lost and love is not reciprocated. Pointing out the child's unconditional love toward their pets can help them visualize our unconditional love for them despite their messes.


2a. Pets expose hidden emotions.

Authority in our lives is good (Romans 13:1-8). It holds us accountable and can be a huge help to us. When authorities put in place to care for us don't we are left hurt. Giving our children small roles of authority over furry helpless pets can open conversation about how wonderful God designed authority to be. God is our ultimate authority, always in perfect love, caring for us(Romans 9:19-21). Parents are the authority over their children, without anger, teaching and disciplining them (Ephesians 6:1-4). Humans are in authority over the animals, with good stewardship, caring for them (Genesis 1:26).

Foster children often struggle with control and lacking trust in their parental authorities. When in a relationship with a pet, the foster child can be in the controlling, authoritative role as the "parent". The foster child can control feedings, baths, training and affection. Please note, this role is guided by or taken over by the foster parent when the role is played with any anger or neglect. The foster child can be guided to be a calm and loving authority. Pointing out the child's success in fulfilling their role as a "foster parent" to this orphaned animal and explaining the appreciation this pet must have for them can rub off as the child's eyes and hearts are opened with appreciation toward their own foster parents. 

Dogs obey authorities (cats not so much). In a dog pack there will be one leader, the authority of the pack. This dog leader is always calm and assertive (as Cesar Millan would say). Dogs will not follow a sporadic, easily-angered, or fearful leader. A dog can often reflect the invisible emotions our kids have inside them. A mirror for their hearts. We can help our kids work out their emotions to practice a calm demeanor so they will enjoy their foster dog or puppy more.  

2b. Foster pets can give our foster kids a voice.

Kids who may not be able to put a labeled emotion on their feelings may be able to label the emotion of a foster pet. When the puppy is crying and howling the first new night in your home the child can label that the puppy is sad. We can develop conversation that relates to their own hidden emotions, "I bet you felt like this foster puppy the first night you came here, you felt sad right?" The conversation can escalate to reasoning behind those emotions. "The foster puppy is sad because he misses his mommy dog." "I bet you feel sad when you miss your mommy." Foster children can more easily verbalize what a foster pet may be feeling than their own emotions. Since the feeling are often mutual, they are essentially exposing their own emotions.

3. Love without boundaries.

When falling in love with a hurting and in need foster pet there is no segregation due to species, breed or color. We don't say, "You, little kitten, are not a human therefore I cannot love you." We love them fully, regardless of their difference of species. We don't say, "You, little puppy, are not my favorite breed of dog therefore I cannot love you." We love them fully, regardless of their breed. We don't say, "You, little bunny, are white and I only love spotted bunnies therefore I cannot love you." We love them fully, regardless of their color. Loving a cross-species pet can show that love crosses even the most difficult boundaries, that love knows no segregation (Galatians 3:28). We can show that just as their love can grow for a different species pet our love can grow for them regardless of their background, heritage or race differences. We see a need and we meet it, regardless of where they came from (James 1:27).


4. Foster pets allow loss and grief.

Death or adoption of a pet brings about a sort of planned loss and grief. A loss unlike their immediate, chaotic and tumultuous exit from their previous family. This type of loss allows understanding, processing and allows us to walk them through the stages of grief. This type of loss still hurts, sometimes deep, but to love unconditionally is to hurt. We don't refuse to help an injured foster pet for fear of death, we love and help them in their hurt even if death and loss is imminent. This type of controlled or planned loss can help bring back old losses and re-walk through that grief appropriately.

Adoption of a pet brings a good mix of grief and joy, a mix of loss and new life. Watching a once orphaned or hurting foster pet find an adoptive family makes real the joy and newness of adoption! It can also help a foster child sympathize with their foster parent if and when it comes time for the foster child to be reunited with their family. They can begin to see that the mix of sadness and joy can and sometimes do coexist.

Foster children with foster pets learn to love, lose and love again. Isn't that the cycle we want to culminate and grow in our children that are struggling to love after past loss and hurts?


The greatest thing about foster pets is they reflect God's perfect love for foster children and us.

If God loved these little furry creatures so much to send a rescue to them through children foster parents then how much more does God love these little helpless children to send a rescue to them through adult foster parents. (Matthew 10:29-31, Matthew 6:25-34)

In the same way, if God loved these little helpless children so much to send a rescue to them through adult foster parents then how much more does God love these adult, imperfect parents to send a rescue to them through His very own Son, Christ Jesus (Romans 5:6-8, Isaiah 40:26-31, John 3:16-18).

"We love, because He first loved us" - 1 John 4:19

Posted by Shannon
Soli Deo gloria - Glory to God alone 


  1. Thank you for this post. My husband and I just had our home study for foster care done. I had never thought about fostering pets and how that could teach them love. It has given me a lot to think about.

    1. You are welcome Jessica. This post isn't to say foster parents of children must be foster parents of animals. This post was an answer to a question posed to me about my experience with fostering both children and animals and if it was helpful.:)

  2. Wow that was great and very interesting in so many ways.