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You can't ladle from an empty bucket

By Eleanor Delewski


When we were sitting in our first foster training class the presenter told us we would have to employ the oxygen mask theory. If there is an emergency during a flight the crew will remind you to put your oxygen mask on before helping others. The theory being if you are passed out cold you are not much good to anyone else.

It is a good metaphor for emergencies. I am an Emergency Nurse and when I train new nurses I tell them the oxygen mask theory. If there is a crisis and you run in without regard for your own safety you can't help anyone else.


At work it's a good metaphor. But I think it is a flawed metaphor for parenting traumatized children.


The idea is to reinforce to new parents that you have to engage in self care in order to have reserves to give to your children. It is a good point, and new foster parents need to hear this message (experienced foster parents often need to be reminded of this message). But using the oxygen mask theory as the example of how to respond to a parenting crisis and then hoping parents get the big picture idea that they must take care of themselves doesn’t make sense.


Crisis time is NOT the time to engage is self care as a parent. When your four-year-old is melting down in the grocery store you can't take a moment for "me time." When your thirteen-year-old is experiencing a severe mental health crisis and you are trying to get emergent help, that is not the time to take a break. You have to deal with the crisis at hand. I remember being taught the oxygen mask theory and then facing our first round of foster parenting crises and thinking, “How on earth am I meant to apply this now?" We instinctively know crisis time is the time to give everything we have.


The message I want to make sure new foster parents hear is this: in order to be able to deal with a crisis when it occurs you need to have something left to give. Crisis will inevitably come when you are a foster parent. It is not a matter of it, but when. When the crisis occurs you better have some reserves left to pull from.


I am a parent trainer for a local foster and adoption agency. “You can’t ladle from an empty bucket,” is what I teach foster parents. Let me introduce you to the bucket theory.


We all have an emotional bucket. Our bucket is filled up by things that make us happy. And it is depleted by things that make us stressed. We can ladle from our bucket into other people’s buckets. When we give time, energy, and love to our kids we are ladling from our bucket to their buckets.


Perhaps you are thinking, “When I spend time with my kids that fills my bucket too! I get happy feelings and love back, I ladle into their bucket and they ladle back into mine.”


I used to think that too! That is the way it should work with families. We all fill each other’s buckets up.

But sometimes parenting a traumatized child doesn't work like that. Sometimes we are called to parent a child who has not yet learned how to accept love or how to give love back. We may be parenting a child who sabotages family “together” time. We may be parenting a child who resists every attempt we make to connect with them. We find our family careening from one crisis to the next. And we see a child so obviously hurting, so in need of someone to fill their bucket up.


The first time I encountered this I figured the solution was just to throw more in the kid's bucket. More love. More time. More attention. I was going to fill their bucket up and all would be right.


What no-one told me is that my kid had a leaky bucket. Years of trauma and disappointment had punctured holes in their bucket. And no matter how much I ladled in it was NEVER enough. The more time I gave the more my child wanted. So I gave more attention and it wasn't enough, there was a constant clamor for more, more, more. I was ladling out of my bucket as fast as I could but everything I poured in my child's bucket was leaking out. My other kids saw that they were not getting their “fair share,” and they wanted more too. So I ladled faster!


And then I hit a wall.


My bucket was empty. I had no energy left, was emotionally spent and had nothing left to give.


I always imagined family time would be what filled my bucket. And these days it is. My kids have been home for years, we are in a pretty good place as a family and our time together fills me up with good feelings and love. Leaky buckets don't have to stay leaky forever. Therapy, years of consistent parenting, and time are all things that can plug those leaks for a lot of kids.


But early on, when I was parenting two traumatized kids who were not sure if I was really going to stick around and be their forever Mom, family time was not what filled my bucket up.


I had to do some serious self evaluation and figure out what did fill my bucket. It's different for everyone, but I began to figure it out. Time with friends filled my bucket. So did a few minutes by myself. Being outside somewhere peaceful. I made a conscious effort to make “bucket filling time,” also known as “me time.” At first I felt huge guilt about it. I literally had to peel little fingers off my legs to be able to get out the door. My husband would stand as a physical barrier in the front door to allow me to leave the house without a kid attached to me.


But after a while I noticed a difference. By taking a break every now and again my bucket was no longer in a frequent state of emptiness. By finding what recharged me I had more to give my kids.


So when I train new foster parents I have them take a piece of paper and write a list of things that fill their buckets. There are normally some eye rolls and a few sighs. I hope that they choose to hear the message and remember to keep their buckets full; though I remember when I was new to this world and full of naïve enthusiasm.


If you find that there comes a day when you stand in your house and think, "I have absolutely nothing left to give this child,” that is when you need to look at your list and figure out how to fill your own bucket back up. That might even mean for a little while you can't spend as much time with your child as you have been and you may need to remind yourself that it is okay for now. You can't ladle from an empty bucket. As foster parents we give and give - please try to remember to also be kind to yourself.


Share your ideas with us. What helps you fill your bucket back up?


Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by the bloggers and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not reflect the opinions of the Richie's Wish. Richie's Wish is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the bloggers.

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