Survival Tips for Foster Parents

I have found through the years that no two experiences in the foster care world are alike. This also includes the experience of having a child from foster care placed into your home. In this situation, first impressions can make or break the child’s transition into your home. After all, the first impression you create with your foster child is often vitally important to how the next few days and weeks will transpire. This will probably not be the sweet little child who rushes into your waiting arms, laughing delightfully, as you might imagine and you may have hoped for. Instead, it is most likely that your foster child will be scared and frightened, full of anxiety. Along with this, he will also probably be confused, and may even be angry. To be sure, I have watched more than a few children placed into my home who were full of anger from being taken from their family and being placed in our home against their wishes. Your foster child may have left his family moments ago, and is now told that you are his family, for the time being.

Without a doubt, he is full of questions, as emotions swirl within him. No matter how much this child has been abused, whether it is physically or emotionally, your foster child will want to their mother and father back. Despite the fact that you can provide a safer, cleaner, and healthier environment, he does not want to be there with you, but instead wants to be with those he was taken from. After all, these people have been the most important people in his life.

Along with this, he has lost his familiar pattern of living, his home, his friends, and all that made up his own personal world. Although it is impossible to predict how he will react when he first meets you, it is important that you approach this time with caution and care, understanding and compassion.

The moment a foster child comes to live with your family and in your home, his whole world has changed completely. There are now different rules and different expectations to follow for him; rules and expectations that may seem very unfamiliar and very strange to him. Remember, your house is a new environment for him. There is even a set of new parents for him, and if you have children of your own, new brothers and sisters to get used to, as well. Everything he has known to be true from his previous home and biological family is now different. Make no mistake; these are significant and profound changes in your foster child’s lifestyle. These sudden changes can be quite traumatic in his life, and are sure to be very upsetting to him, as well. All decision making has been taken away from your foster child, as he has had no say in being removed from his family, and placed into foster care. Indeed, your foster child is in your house against his will, and against his wishes. Quite simply, he doesn’t want to be there, in your home, as everything is unfamiliar to him. It is not his family, it is not his home, and it is not his rules.

With this in mind, there is a good chance that any rules and expectations you have for your foster child will not be met. This is especially true in the first few days and weeks. This is a time to gain trust as well as simply get to know each other. It may take a while, but as a foster parent, you are in it for the long, tough haul. Make no mistake, is often times tough. For many foster children, they have been given up on numerous times. You just might be the first adults in their lives who will not give up on them. They may resist you, and may resist all that you have to offer. This is normal for a foster child. Remember, they may very well not want to be in your home, as it is not their own home. They may not want to be living with your family when they come to you, as it is not their own family. You could be the bad guy in this situation, and you can’t expect them to embrace you and your family immediately, or even to like you.

To be sure, each child’s placement is different. Some children in foster care may come to your house with a head full of lice and a body full of scabies, while some might be some might be covered in dirt, and the few possessions they own, if any, carried in a black plastic bag. In fact, they may only have the clothes on their back, as several have when coming to my own home. Others may come to stay with you clean, healthy, and with a suitcase full of clothing, a box of possessions, and some money in their wallet. What is important is that you do not judge your foster child based on his arrival and appearance. However they arrive to your home, they will need your family’s patience, your compassion, and your love.

As your foster child will need time to adjust to his new home and environment, he will require time and patience from you. Along with this, he will also need your compassion, and your understanding during what is sure to be a very emotional and traumatic time for him. Remember, he is in a strange home, with strangers; your home and your family. To him, everything is strange and new; a new home, new food, new “parents,” and “brothers and sisters”, and new rules and expectations for him to follow. Perhaps to compound his confusion even further, a new school, along with students and teachers, as well, if he has moved from another school system. As you can imagine, it is likely that he may act out in a variety of ways as he struggles to understand the severe and sudden changes in his life. Your foster child may exhibit sudden outbursts of anger and aggressive behavior, extreme bouts of sadness and depression or even imaginative stories about his birth family. Indeed, it is not unlikely that he will exhibit all of these. Furthermore, he may even express no emotions, at all, and seem completely shut off to you, in an emotional manner. As foster parents, it is important that you do not take his behavior personally. After all, he is attempting to understand his feelings, and cope the best way he can, and perhaps the only way he knows.

The Power Of Our Words

Remember the old saying “if you have nothing nice to say, don’t say it at all.” It rings just as true today as it did when you were a child. Even more so when it comes to children who have lived a life of abuse; they most likely have come from an environment where there was verbal abuse, as well. Then, there is the other old saying, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” A great saying that is taught to our children over and over, from one generation to the next, and from household to another.

Yet, it is a lie.

Through the years, I have seen the true power that words have. As a father to over 50 children from foster care over a decade now, I have had children come to live in my home who have never had a kind word said to them. Sadly, for them, profanity and harsh words were all they knew, words that were directed at them and towards them on a daily basis.

The nine year old boy whose mother verbally abused him at every opportunity, calling him “a..hole” as her personal nick name for him. For the six months this boy lived with our family, he never had a kind word to another, he never smiled, never showed any indication of happiness.

The seventeen year old boy, homeless the past 18 months, who joined my family recently after being released from a county prison. When I asked him about his short time in prison, he commented that he liked being there, stating that “the prison guards were the first people who had treated him nice.”

The four year old boy who came to my home, his every other word was one of profanity. This four year old boy even called my daughter the “n” word when he first met her. A four year old boy! How does a four year old boy know this word? Perhaps it was from his grandfather who spoke like that on a consistent basis around him.

Sadly, these stories are not unique. Time after time, children come to my home, never hearing a kind word said to them. Never complimented on school work, how they looked, or for anything else. Never encouraged to try their best. Never being told they were loved. As Yehuda Berg once said, “Words are singularly the most powerful force available to humanity. We can choose to use this force constructively with words of encouragement, or destructively using words of despair. Words have energy and power with the ability to help, to heal, to hinder, to hurt, to harm, to humiliate and to humble.”

Words DO have power. Words can heal, and they can hurt. Words can encourage, and they can destroy. The power we have when we speak is indeed significant, and can be life changing, mountain moving.

As a parent, I understand that what I say to my children is detrimental to their development. Each day, I try to find something positive to say to each child, and to thank each child for something they did throughout the day. Whether it is praising a child for unloading the dish washer, or how their hair looked, I understand that my children crave a kind word from me. As a former high school teacher, I tried to find some way to complement each student on a regular basis, never speaking harshly or negatively, and showing kindness in my deeds and my words. In both worlds, as a parent and as a teacher, the words “please” and “thank you” were a large part of my vocabulary, and I tried to not only use them throughout each day, but model them as examples for their own way of speech.

Words of affirmation, of trust, and of compassion are building blocks in the life of a child. Words of patience, of kindness, and of love are essential to the wellbeing, mental health, and emotional stability of each child.

Excerpt from The Foster Care Survival Guide, 2018
Published with permission from Atlantic Publishing Group