The life of a foster parent can be rewarding and satisfying as it provides tremendous opportunities to glorify God by impacting vulnerable young lives. However, that doesn’t mean foster parenting is without its trying or even traumatic moments. Join co-hosts Lynette Ezell and Tera Melber as they listen to Nicole Barlow share how life as a biological mother of one and foster mom of a group of five siblings has stretched her and husband Bruce’s capacity to handle unexpected moments of trauma with the love of Jesus.
Favorite Resources from Nicole:
“The Soul of Shame,” by Dr. Curt Thompson, MD; Empoweredtoconnect.org
Find out how to give to the Ministry Adoption Fund to help families like the Barlows by visiting sendrelief.org/foster-care-adoption/.
Announcer: Welcome to the Adopting and Fostering Home Podcast. Whether your family has been on this journey for years or you’re just getting started, we’re here to support and encourage you along the way.
And now your hosts, Lynette Ezell and Tera Melber.
Lynette Ezell: You know Tera, we’ve said many times that trauma doesn’t tell time.
Tera Melber: It does not.
Lynette Ezell: I know, and a child can be with their forever family for years before we even see the early effects of trauma, before they’re apparent or even acted out. Thousands of children adopted internationally, domestically, and through the foster system were hurt by adults years before we were able to even bring them into our lives, into our homes. And they experience things like neglect, abuse, abandonment, and many were exposed to drug and alcohol while in the womb. If that wasn’t enough, they were traumatized by multiple moves and repeated failed reunification efforts.
Tera Melber: I know, and although we love them and we provide a safe home for them to thrive and to heal and we know they’re safe, they don’t necessarily feel safe. Early childhood trauma can catch us off guard and really move us from dormant to explosive in just a matter of seconds. Our children were hurt in the context of relationships, and the only way they’re going to heal is in the context of relationships. Our past really does shape our present and our future. And through training and personal experience, our guest today, Nicole Barlow has really great advice on navigating the effects of trauma.
Lynette Ezell: Yes. Nicole, we’re so excited to have you. We know that you are walking this journey, and so welcome to the podcast today.
Nicole Barlow: Thank you. I’m excited to be here.
Lynette Ezell: So you and Bruce started fostering in 2013. So why don’t you just tell us a little bit about how that began and about your family?
Nicole Barlow: Yeah, sure. So I did an afterschool Bible club with our local church, and there was a foster child in my group. And they say it’s very easy to look at the statistics and kind of forget about foster care or adoption until it’s in your face and until you see the faces of the kids that are going through this. And so Bruce and I started the journey to become foster parents, and very quickly we were approved and received our first placement. So that was back in 2013. And we fostered two young boys and then fostered a couple of other placements, but then we ended up adopting a sibling group of five.
Lynette Ezell: Oh my goodness. That says volumes to me.
Tera Melber: No kidding.
Nicole Barlow: Thankfully, I don’t think we really knew what we were getting into.
Lynette Ezell: And they were six and under?
Nicole Barlow: So they were 10 and under. So they were two, three, four, nine and 10.
Lynette Ezell: Wow.
Nicole Barlow: When we first got placement of them.
Tera Melber: And then your biological child was, how old?
Nicole Barlow: He was 13 I think at the time.
Tera Melber: Wow. Talk about rocking your world as a 13 year old. That’s amazing.
Nicole Barlow: Yes. And thankfully we had already been fostering for a little bit, so he was somewhat used to having kids in the home. But maybe just not to that-
Tera Melber: Not to that volume.
Nicole Barlow: … level. Plus I think the kids that we had fostered before, most of our foster care placements had come straight from their biological homes into our home. And the sibling set of five that we adopted, they had all been in multiple placements. I think our little girls, we were their sixth placement. And they were 3 and 4 when we had them. So I think that adds another level of trauma to our kids. So we had never dealt with the level of trauma that these kids had experienced either.
Lynette Ezell: Nicole, you have some advice for families that are kind of going through trauma, and I trained with you. I love training with you. Always learned volumes, and I know not only are you homeschooling raising your children to know the Lord and be in a safe family for these kids to grow up and to walk through their process of healing. But you do a lot of stuff outside the home.
Tera Melber: I know. It’s incredible. You’re a foster family trainer, and you’ve served as a CASA worker. so you bring a wealth of knowledge, especially to families who are just beginning the process, and we really appreciate it. And we would love to pick your brain about it all.
Nicole Barlow: Yeah, sure. So, I mean, I think one of the things… First of all, I do all of those things to have a way out of my house. To get free from all the crazy.
Tera Melber: We feel you. It’s self care.
Nicole Barlow: The more stuff I add outside the home, the more breaks that I get. My husband travels for a living, so he’s gone some of the time. And a lot of the weight falls on me by myself. So when he comes home I’m like, “Peace out. I’m going to train.”
Lynette Ezell: We do have fun in training. We really do.
Nicole Barlow: We do. And I think the training, it kind of reiterate to me what I’m supposed to be doing on a regular basis. And I think it reminds me of my kids’ trauma because I think it’s very easy to get to a place where when they first come to us, their trauma is all we see. But over time I think we forget some of their trauma and we’re not as compassionate to it. So part of me sort of hopes to keep that on the forefront of my mind. But I would say my biggest thing is to make sure that we’re seeing their need. That whatever behaviors are happening, it’s because they have an underlying need, and what is that need ultimately?
And sometimes it may be just our help to regulate their bodies because they didn’t receive that as babies and infants and toddlers. They didn’t have somebody to help them regulate their emotions and regulate their bodies. They didn’t have somebody providing for their needs constantly. And sometimes it’s kind of a toss-up to figure out what the need is because if they’re not expressing it in an appropriate way, you have to figure that out. It’s not always something that’s obvious.
Lynette Ezell: No, it’s not. You agree with me, I say over and over we’ve got to be the adult in the room.
Nicole Barlow: Yeah, yeah. I mean, we really do. And if we can’t regulate our own emotions, how are we going to expect them to regulate theirs? I was listening to something recently that was talking about, as babies, the way that babies calm down is by the calmness of their parents. The heartbeat of their parents, the breathing of their parents. And that literally helps that regulate. And so our kids may not have had that help regulating their body. So they need it now. They need us to pull them close and for us to be calm, for our breathing to be regular, for our heartbeat to be regular, so that they can take on that kind of calmness themselves. If we communicate to them that they are safe and that we are safe and that this is okay, we’re going to get through this together, then that will help them regulate their own bodies.
Lynette Ezell: Because I know even as an adult sometimes, I know sometimes I don’t know how we’re going to get through this. Seriously it can get really serious. But you have to still give the appearance of I do believe the Lord’s going to get us through this, that it is a process, and I’ve got to be the adult at all times.
Nicole Barlow: Yeah. And I think it’s hard. We have one child with really severe behaviors, and so the way that she communicates her needs are really scary. I mean, it’s not stuff that I am used to hearing or seeing, and so it is really scary. But the underlying need is the same. It’s the same as my kids that don’t present their need in a scary way. The need ultimately is the same. So I have to cut through all of the language or the threats or the destruction, and see the need behind all of it because then the need itself is not so scary. And I can meet that need. And when I see it for what it is, then it helps me to calm down as well.
Tera Melber: Right? Regulating ourselves and understanding coping mechanisms is a learned skill. So your kids are learning that from you. So even as you stay attuned to your own body and your own really resting in the Lord and seeking the Lord so that you can maintain calmness in the moment, once you’re doing that and you’re modeling that for your child and then helping them say when the moment has passed, say, “Man, I know that this is how you reacted to what your need was. Hey, let’s practice again and see what could you have done or how could you have said that. Instead of going into a big rage, for you to just say, ‘Mom, I’m really frustrated.’” Then starting to use your words and be able to label it and give them the vocabulary that they need. Then that’s the hope, that we can move from really having to be their total external regulator to really helping them have the skills that they need to be able to cope with what’s going on inside.
Nicole Barlow: Sure. And I think one of the things that’s been really important… I mean, even this past weekend, I messed up really, really bad with one of my kids. She’s started having really scary behaviors. And it triggered me. I got scared, and her coping skill, her main fight, flight, or freeze is to run away from problems. She doesn’t want to be anywhere around it, and she’s going to do anything she can in the moment to push you away so that she doesn’t have to face it. But I’m the same way. I do the exact same thing. And so in the moment, we both pushed away from each other. And I came back and I just said, “Listen, I need a redo.”
Lynette Ezell: That’s great.
Nicole Barlow: “I didn’t handle that right. And when you get scared, you want to run away.” And I said, “When I get scared, I want to run away. So let’s figure this out together.” And I said, “What’s something that can help us calm down?” And so I told her, I said, “I read somewhere that dark chocolate helps you calm down.”
Lynette Ezell: Oh girl, yes. Amen, dark chocolate.
Nicole Barlow: So we each got a dark chocolate. She goes, “Okay, let’s try it together.” I’m like, “Okay.”
Lynette Ezell: That is awesome.
Nicole Barlow: So she had a dark chocolate almond and I had a dark chocolate almond, and we ate it. She was like, “That works. I’m calm.” But I think even for her to see like she is not alone in her struggles. I still struggle with this stuff. I need a dark, chocolate covered almond to help me calm down just like her. It’s not just her issue. It’s that we all need to learn how to handle stress.
Tera Melber: And when you do that, Nicole, and you did it so well, our children really carry such a deep shame core.
Lynette Ezell: They do.
Tera Melber: And then if they lose their mind and behave terribly, that shame core is just exacerbated. And so I think we really have to be mindful of that. And so for you to say, “Hey, man. I struggle with this and this is how I’m going to cope with it.” And apologizing when you mess up. It just really is modeling how they need to also find what works for them. But we also have to know that it’s not like a one-time or two-time training. It is long.
Lynette Ezell: It’s a lifelong process.
Tera Melber: It really is.
Lynette Ezell: It’s a lifelong process.
Nicole Barlow: Which can make you-
Lynette Ezell: Crazy.
Tera Melber: Yeah. It really can. We’re going to do another podcast about that soon. I’ve heard you talk quite a bit about equal parts structure and nurture in the home. What do you mean by that?
Nicole Barlow: Well, I mean, when we first started, I was pretty resistant to like TBRI type stuff. And I got the connecting and empowering principals and all of that kind of stuff. But I guess I had in my mind in reading The Connected Child and seeing some of the videos early on, that all of that meant that you relax on your rules, right? You relax on the structure in your home. And I heard at some point like, “No, it’s not about relaxing on your structure.” I am a high-structure person. I like things in order. I like things to go in a certain way. And I think that it helps keep everybody safe.
In my home, we have to have a lot of boundaries for certain kids because they need to be safe and everybody else in our home needs to be safe. So it’s not possible for me to always bring down my structure for those kids and to let them have just tons of freedom. It’s not even setting them up for success. So instead for my kids that need so much structure and so much correction and so much teaching, I have to raise my nurture level. So that, Tera, you just mentioned the shame, right? If all I’m doing is correcting them, if all I’m doing is setting up boundaries for them, saying, “You can’t, you can’t, you can’t,” then that’s very shaming for them.
But if I raise my level of nurture to the level of structure that they need, then I’m combating all of that shame with, “I love you. You’re incredible. You are precious. You are God-made, and you have purpose.” I’m breathing all of that stuff into them. “You are loved. You were chosen.” I’m pouring just as much of that in as I am, “No, no, no, no, no.” Because I do have to say, “No, no, no, no, no, no,” lots of times, but it’s just one of those things where I also need to be saying just as much like, “You are loved. You are heard. You are important.”
Tera Melber: That’s really good. I was actually just talking to a mom about all of this just this morning, in fact. Because she was feeling really upset because of everything that was going on in her house, she was frustrated. And she really didn’t want to increase her nurture. So yeah.
Lynette Ezell: We can lose our want-to.
Tera Melber: Right. And so one of the things that I mentioned to her was creating some additional margin in her life in order to feel like she even had the capacity to do that. And so I know that when we’re parenting kids from trauma, we’re parenting large families, even if you’ve got one child from trauma, it can be really exhausting.
So I think we have to be really mindful that we can say no to other things to create a little gap in our schedule where we can breathe a bit. So that if there is a major meltdown, we don’t have eight appointments that we’re trying to get to while we’re dealing with the major meltdown.
Lynette Ezell: Yeah. And in the podcast we did on stay in your lane, that’s what we meant. We may need to revisit that, but we have to stay in the calling, God has given us. Even though we may be great at other things, I don’t have that problem. But I’m saying you do have to… Like I was telling a mom that just got another foster placement that’s probably going to go to adoption, that makes number six for her, we got to hunker down.
Tera Melber: Right, right.
Nicole Barlow: Yeah. And one of the things that I really had to be intentional about, because there’s always somebody melting down in my house. With six kids, five from really extreme trauma, there’s always somebody that’s going through something. And so I’ve had to create space in my day where it is quiet time. Even as outgoing as my personality is, I’m a closet introvert. I need my alone time. And so I’ve had to set up margin in my day where I can get in the Word, where I can be poured into, where I can take time for myself so that I am ready to nurture. Because sometimes I have to get up and it is like, “Okay, Lord. You’re going to have to help me nurture this child today. I don’t feel like it. They are not kind to me.”
So we’ve set up time in our day. So I get all of our kids up in the morning, and then they each have like an hour to get ready in their rooms, to clean up their rooms. And if they finish, they can play and do whatever quietly in their rooms. But it’s quiet time in the morning for me to get my Bible out, to have some coffee, to kind of have some quietness before I really start my day.
Lynette Ezell: So they’re not yelling, “Mom” that whole hour.
Nicole Barlow: Right. I mean, it took a while to get to that point, and there are times where that time is disrupted. But, for the most part, that’s my time where I can get in the Word.
But then also, then I set up a quiet time after lunch where they’re in their rooms playing quietly or taking a nap or doing whatever, so that I can get back in the Word. Because by that time, I’m spent already. So it’s setting up our day so that I intentionally have those moments where I can get back to, “Okay, God, pour into me so I can pour out in them.”
Tera Melber: Right. And that really does mean when we’re staying in the Word, it also really means that we have the opportunity at that moment to pour out our hearts in prayer. Just like the Psalmist did, just like King David did, to say, just like what you said, “I don’t want to nurture this child. They hurt me. This is not fun. I don’t like it.” On the days that you feel that way, it’s really okay to say those things to the Lord.
Lynette Ezell: Because he knows that anyway.
Tera Melber: Right.
Lynette Ezell: And he’s the only one who can shoulder it.
Tera Melber: And then, often as King David, did to say all of those things, but then to come back to the character of God. “But, Lord, I know that you called me to this. I know that you called our family to this, and I know that this is your character. And that you can help us through this.”
And so I think just like when you said that you go to do your training for self care and to get out of the house and to remind you to look through the lens of trauma when you’re parenting your children, I think oftentimes too though we need to sit before the Lord and rail and say all of those things that we feel. But then remember who he is and what he’s called us to. And that we have the capability through our relationship with him to be successful. And I use that term in a way that doesn’t mean that successful means that our children graduate from grad school with a 4.0 and have a perfect relationship with their family. Successful is that we’ve been faithful to the Lord and then we allow the Lord to do what he needs to do to sanctify our children as well.
Nicole Barlow: Yeah. I think that’s one of the things that really got me early on – and I think the Word kind of pulled me back – was that I felt like because my kids were struggling so much that I was not being obedient or I was doing something wrong or there was something wrong with me. I wasn’t cut out to do this, right? “Lord, you called the wrong person. I’m not the one. I’m not good at this. This isn’t working.” And so I like that you changed the lens of what success means, right? Is just my obedience to the Lord.
I think when I was going through a season where I was really feeling down on myself because of some of the chaos in the home of the Lord kind of guided me to Numbers 11. And I thought like I heard somebody talking about Numbers 11 in a Bible study, and they were talking about the manna, and I was like, “I’m going to go to Numbers 11 because I need your manna today, Lord.” It was all that kind of thing. And the Lord showed me something completely different.
Moses is crying out to God and saying, “God, why did you give me these people? I am not cut out for these people. I didn’t birth these people. Why are you giving them to me? This burden is too great. I’m not cut out for this.” He even says at the end of it, “Kill me now. If I find favor in your sight, please kill me now so I don’t have to deal with this anymore.” And that’s exactly how I felt. I thought, “You know what, Moses is so close to God that he had to have a veil over his face because he literally shined from God’s presence and his closeness with him. And if Moses can feel that way, maybe it’s okay that I feel that way too.”
Lynette Ezell: Right, right. You went before the Lord with the Numbers 11 and you know those moments like the three of us, we’ve been on the word forever, right? But the Lord’s new every day. He teaches us something new every day. And when he taught you that in Numbers 11, man, I had that moment with First Kings this week. I hear you. But when that hits home, how was that a game changer for you?
Nicole Barlow: Well, one, I think that it just reminded me, and I go back to Numbers 11 regularly now. But I think it reminded me that my success is not based off of what my kids are doing today. My success is in my relationship with God. Am I connected to him? Am I attached to that vine? And then that’s it. That’s my responsibility.
But it also showed me the second part of that chapter it talks about that the Lord gives Moses community to help him, to help ease some of the burden. And so it also helps me see what I needed to be doing to set myself up for success so that I’m not weary all the time. I do need community around me. I need people to pour into me and to pour in my kids and to hold my arms up sometimes because I can’t do this by myself. It’s too much.
Lynette Ezell: Well, and how have you and Bruce been able to just maintain a close relationship or just to do this together?
Nicole Barlow: Yeah. I mean, it’s hard. It’s hard, but it has brought us closer. So much closer together because we’ve had to fight together. Right? And I don’t mean fight against each other. We’ve had to fight against the enemy. We’ve had to fight the chaos. We’ve had to battle for our kids together, and we don’t have any other option. Bruce says our kids kind of solidify that one will ever leave the other because we know it’s too much of a burden. Neither of us are that cruel or would be that cruel the other one.
Lynette Ezell: I love that.
Nicole Barlow: But we do have to be intentional and now that our kids are getting a little bit older, our oldest is 15 now. So we can leave, and leave him home with everybody. Not all the time. Sometimes if people are melting down, we may have to cancel our plans.
Lynette Ezell: Exactly. You do have to hold those loosely. Yeah.
Nicole Barlow: But at the same time, we have had some flexibility where we can leave him with everybody some, or we get a babysitter on a pretty regular basis. You know what, it has been great for my kids. We have this great babysitter that’s a middle school teacher so she can handle anything. And she loves pouring into my kids. Where it’s not just us pouring into them, it gives an opportunity for them to see community of people surrounding them, community of people pouring into them. So to really be able to take that time as well and just say, “Hey, we need our time together.”
But it looks different. Sometimes it may just be after everybody goes to bed. We’re not at a place yet where all of our kids are stable enough for us to go on a week-long cruise or something like that. Which we’re praying for that day to come. But I feel like we will get there one day, and in the meantime, it may mean, you know what, we make everybody go upstairs and watch a movie while we have dinner together by ourselves.
Lynette Ezell: Yeah, that’s right. That’s right.
Tera Melber: And it’s good for your kids to see that as well.
Lynette Ezell: Yeah.
Nicole Barlow: Yeah.
Tera Melber: Well we all know that this journey can be very isolating and so I feel like all of that is such a good word.
Lynette Ezell: It really is – to just always be the adult in the room and figure out the need. And I love when you talk about equal-parts structure and nurture because I can get off balanced in that.
Tera Melber: Right, right. And just to be reminded of it. When my structure increases, my nurture has to increase. And just being mindful of it helps us to know what we need to bring into the relationship.
And then of course, Lynette and I talk about this all the time. You have to stay in prayer and stay in the Word. It’s our foundation. If our whole house falls down, my foundation will still be strong because I’m going to walk with the Lord and our obedience to him is not a formula of pour this in and get this output. The Lord has only asked us to be obedient, and we can come to him for all things.
Nicole Barlow: Yeah. That is true.
Lynette Ezell: Well, Nicole, I know another neat fact about your family. I want to share. I’m going to let you share it, but your kids are superstars.
Nicole Barlow: Well, sort of. Yeah. So when they were filming the movie Instant Family, they were looking for real adoptive kids and families to use as extras in the film. And so my family got chosen to be included, and so my kids are in the movie. One of my kids, my oldest, you can actually see really, really well. And he’s actually even in the trailer. So that part’s kind of neat.
Lynette Ezell: Oh, I bet they were so excited to do that.
Nicole Barlow: They were. Now they’re not allowed to watch the movie because-
Tera Melber: I know. There’s some language in it.
Lynette Ezell: I know, but for us adults, I think that it just helped people not feel so alone. Adult people in foster care.
Nicole Barlow: I watch it pretty regularly. If we’ve had a bad day…
Tera Melber: That’s hilarious.
Nicole Barlow: I’m like, “I’m going to turn that on to remind me that I am not alone in this.”
Tera Melber: Right.
Lynette Ezell: Absolutely. Well, that’s so fun that your family got to do that.
Nicole Barlow: Yeah, it was super fun.
Lynette Ezell: Nicole, thanks for being with us today. We are so grateful for your time. I know you’re homeschooling and trying to keep your little herd together over there. You guys are doing great, and you encouraged me. And so hope this will be an encouragement to hundreds of others who are listening.
Nicole Barlow: Thank you. I’ve enjoyed speaking with you guys as always.
Tera Melber: Thanks, Nicole.
Announcer: You have been listening to the Adopting and Fostering Home, a resource of the North American Mission Board. For more information about today’s podcast and other relevant resources, visit sendrelief.org.