Updated: Aug 3
Fostering children is not for the faint of heart and requires a huge amount of love, self-sacrifice, and patience. However, it can also be hugely rewarding and can forever change the lives of the children. Being separated from their family is very difficult and these kids need a soft place to fall. Over the years I have seen families do things very well and have well-adjusted kids as a result, and I’ve also seen families struggle. I’d like to offer some tips from my experience in mental health:
1. The very first goal is to establish rapport. Children are usually extremely perceptive and will sniff out a situation to try to decide whether they will be loved and accepted in your home or if they are anticipating rejection. Kids need unconditional love, someone who believes in them, and someone who is willing to understand them. Don’t worry about changing them on day one. Seek to know them.
2. Be welcoming and hospitable, yet firm. You do not have to lay out every ground rule on day one or have rigid expectations of the children. Let them know the basic expectations but also be flexible, as this is probably uncharted territory for them. It is also helpful to communicate rules in positive language. For instance, instead of saying “No name calling or cussing,” you might say “We will speak positive and encouraging words to each other.” Instead of “No hitting or kicking” say “We respect the boundaries of others” or “Please keep your hands and feet to yourself.” Kids generally do not like the word “no” and respond better if you avoid using it.
3. Ask the children what their home was like and look for ways to make your home familiar. Maybe they had a favorite book to read at night or a certain schedule for bathing. They might have enjoyed playing video games after dinner. It might even be that they prefer to sleep in their clothes rather than wearing pajamas. Try to find ways to allow them to do what is familiar, especially as they get settled. Obviously, do not condone damaging or destructive behaviors or routines, but be open to something ordinary to them even if it is out of the ordinary for your family.
4. Remember that discipline takes time. Baby steps toward the goal are steps in the right direction. Your best bet is to make small, easily achievable goals. If a child has no concept of self-control, he or she will be very unlikely to meet high expectations of behavior. If you have a sibling group that is used to physical aggression, it will take time to break down those habits and form better conflict-resolution skills. Perhaps the first goal is to keep them from harming each other while tolerating verbal aggression. That would be a follow-up goal. You wouldn’t expect a 10-year-old to ace an algebra test. Likewise, children who have had poor boundaries will have to learn how to respect boundaries. It takes daily training with many failures along the way.
Related Post: Children in Foster Care: Grief During the Holidays
5. Recognize that regardless of the situation they came from, they most likely have deep love for their parents and miss them terribly. I remember being shocked at hearing children beg to see a parent who had viciously abused them. Now I realize that this is normal. They have likely experienced deep pain, but they probably had a lot of good times as well. Separation from their family results in a deep sense of loss. As a foster parent, it is vital to not show scorn for the biological family regardless of the situation. If you do, you will likely be considered an enemy. At the least, it will be very difficult to earn the child’s trust. Do not have expectations that they will call you mom or dad, or even that they will treat you as a parent. When a child is placed in a foster situation, they generally consider it a stop along the way. If it is a long-term placement, those feelings can change with time. Younger children are likely to bond quickly but older children can be very slow to warm.
6. You can help children learn to regulate their emotions and process their loss. Every child should learn how to calm down when they are upset. Here’s a link to another blog post on using play dough to calm down. And here is one about processing grief. I also recommend the Darius' Foster Care Adventure book and game.
7. Your foster kids probably need counseling. Just the trauma of being removed from their home is enough to need someone to help them through the mixed feelings. They are likely dealing with abandonment, high anxiety, anger, and grief. If the children experienced abuse or neglect, they definitely need help to recover. A therapist can be helpful in identifying specific changes that can be made at home to better adjust to their current situation. They can also help them rescript negative assumptions about why they are experiencing their loss.
8. Do not be surprised or deterred if a child comes in with a strong attitude and tests your boundaries. This is a common coping mechanism, especially for older children who have been betrayed in the past. If they believe you are going to dump them as soon as they get difficult, they probably want to get it over with. However, if you continue to show love and grace despite the difficult attitude, you will likely earn a loyal, loving child in the end. Trust has to be earned, and for some, it comes with a high price and a lot of work.
I hope these tips are valuable and helpful. While many children who enter the foster care system come with emotional baggage and can be difficult, this is certainly not always the case. Many are very loving, well-behaved children who just want to be loved. The very difficult ones can also be very loving, well-behaved children as well. It just takes them time to develop trust.