When I picked up Joe* for the first time from school, I saw a tall kid with dyed hair towering over a group of teenagers. The group all wore black and had an assortment of different hair colors and cuts. Joe and I made eye contact. I saw him begin to slowly walk over to me. I next noticed he had wireless earbuds on under his shaggy hair as it flopped around. I quickly greeted him and showed him to my car. I noticed his breathing beginning to get shallow once he stepped into my car. He quickly pulled out his Nintendo switch and turned it on. I tried to make small talk to get to know him better, but he would only give me a “yeah” or an “I don’t know” to nearly every question. I asked him if he would like to sit in silence for the rest of the 15 minute car ride back to his home and he mumbled a “yes.”
Once we arrived back at his home, he spent a long while in another room while I waited in the kitchen. He came back after 20 minutes or so and asked if I would like to play a board game. A mostly silent car ride followed by a board game would be the pattern of Joe and my contacts over the next couple months. And as much as I tried to talk about his interests he would not give me much more than a three word response.
I think that he was grateful that I offered him a choice of silence in the car after a while of me trying to talk with him about video games and board games. In time, I could tell he thought I was maybe alright. I was able to crack a joke about him wearing headphones when I was talking. And I began to see a few smirks here and there, but never got more than a chuckle.
The plan was for Joe and me to work on developing his social skills, to try different positive mood elevating activities and to increase his self advocacy. From the beginning, I knew that we needed to take things a little slow. My initial ambition to support him with these skills only caused more silence from Joe. His parents wanted him to socialize more and be able to talk with them about his depression. Sometimes he would share this brilliant insight and self-awareness and then clam up for the rest of the time I was there. He was one of those introverted people that you could just tell had an enormous internal world.
We would play one round of a board game and then his foster parents would hop in on the game after they got home from work. Joe was good at board games. He was good at all of them. I never won once. He would even go easy on me and still lap me. I could see the excitement in him after dominating me and his foster parents at nearly every board game we played together. I could hear his voice become lower and sentences increase in length when playing board games. He even stood taller. He owned the room when playing board games. He made us laugh and opened up about his past experiences. It was as if the distraction of the board game allowed him to be a different person for a moment only to go back to avoiding eye contact and responding with one word responses after. During our board game times we were able to talk about a variety of things, like implementing more structure in the home, chores that Joe could do and his feelings of doubt. We were also able to tease him about his need to beat us not allowing him to leave the room for almost anything.
Joe would tease his foster parents as if they were peers. He would test them by saying rude things to them that were painful. When they shared with him how his words made them feel, he was confused. I don’t think many people had been open and honest with him in the same way before. And these foster parents kept showing up. Maybe that confused him too.
They began building traditions, rituals and structures in the home. Joe would have a pizza gaming night on Sundays with his friends from church and his foster dad. All of these actions helped them grow closer as a family. Joe would stay up after his foster dad went to bed with his foster mother eating cookies and watching their show together. He went from not wanting to leave the house to attending church gatherings, weekend church groups, gaming nights with friends, going to the gym, playing guitar, and exploring coding jobs in San Francisco at his dream company. We could all see how welcoming and nourishing his new home was and he started to see it too. All these weekly traditions started to make him feel more welcome and comfortable in the home. Joe slowly stopped treating them like peers.
I noticed things started to change even more when he picked up learning the guitar. He started putting on music during our board game sessions. We started talking about lyrics and what he liked about certain styles of music. I could not believe it, but he would actually sing in front of me. I could see that he really got something out of playing guitar, but only he knew what it was. I could only guess. He also started dating at that time. While I don’t think learning to play the guitar is related, it might be a little.
We went out for a burger on our last day of working with each other. We sat down, enjoyed our fries and enormous burgers and headed back to his home. The ride home was mostly silent to no surprise. I could not tell if he was listening to music or not. I began talking about his strengths and the skills he had built during our time together. I told him that I really enjoyed losing at board games, hearing him play guitar and hearing about the newest video games over the last several months. I looked over and he gave me a soft smile without showing his teeth. I then said, “I enjoyed working with you, but I don’t really think we ever completely clicked.” I looked over not really knowing what to expect. He looked over at me and grinned from ear to ear and began to laugh. I did too. He thanked me and told me how much he enjoyed beating me at board games.
It really moved me when I learned that Joe’s foster parents were able to successfully adopt him, especially after all the hiccups they had faced as a family. And I feel honored to have been part of his life. It goes to show that we really can touch someone and their family just by being a consistent person in their life.
For any questions about adopting or foster parenting, please email FCNI's foster and adoption program supervisor at firstname.lastname@example.org.