Like most things in life, being a foster parent has both challenges and rewards. And because most foster children have experienced difficulties that most other kids haven’t, they have different needs. Therefore, parents to foster children need preparation that other parents don’t.
Many children in the foster care system have special needs, or come from a violent or unstable home environment. So, when there are no other viable caretakers in the family, these children are absorbed into the foster care system. In addition to caring for their basic needs, they need a special type of love, patience, acceptance, and sense of security.
In a study in the journal of Child Welfare, they attest that over 400,000 children entered the foster care system in the US. The system, however, does not also take care of these children in the way that they need and “children drift from one foster home to another, hoping and waiting find a permanent home.”
Moreover, foster parents are needed because of the challenges children face before they’re even received into the system. For example:
Before you become a foster parent, communication with your family—especially if you have biological children—is key. If you communicate well and have the honest conversations, you can avoid many of the problems new foster parents face.
One way to put this communication into practice is to involve the whole family in the preparation process. Ask your children and partner what they’re most looking forward to. What fears do they have? What new things are they uncertain about? Unless the doors of conversation are open in your own family dynamic, it’s going to make having a new member of the family even more challenging.
A stable and safe living environment is important for caring for foster children. When you first bring your foster child home, bring them into their room and show what you and your family have prepared for them.
Make sure not to over-compensate though. Leave room for them to make the space “their own.” If you don’t get an initial reaction, don’t worry. It’s very normal for the child to feel a little scared or overwhelmed with the new environment. Gently going over house rules and giving them a tour of your space will add to the feeling of security, especially if you write them down for them or have them posted on a family communication board.
Other preparations don’t have to be overly extensive, but if there are things you learn about the child before they arrive, do so! Knowing things like food preferences or special things they enjoy can help make them feel more comfortable, welcomed, and safe.
Most foster parents don’t know how their fostering will continue. This makes flexibility and adaptability necessary in order to deal with these unknown time frames. If you end up fostering for only one night or few months while the child’s parents are in transition or are in recovery, the approach you take will differ from than someone’s in a permanent fostering position.
Depending on your situation, the parenting style you take should adjust to the child’s background and their unique needs. The commitments for a foster parent no matter the time frame include:
In all cases, the details of your commitment to your foster child run smoother when you can remain calm, supportive, and adaptable.
All children, especially those in the foster care system, need routine. The stability and security that routine offers is a key part of their own mental and emotional health. Regular meal times, bed times, and play times will bring stability back to their daily experience. These scheduling pillars will also give them room to heal in the ways that they need.
Foster children, like any child, also need clear boundaries. If you can be clear, consistent and calm, kids will settle in quicker and feel safe sooner. And while it’s normal for children to test and push those boundaries, it’s essential to follow through on your word. Children may not always accept these routines; things take time and will likely require the assistance of behavioral health support.
Consequences can also mean rewarding good behavior and can encourage your foster child to see what positive reinforcement looks like. This will help build trust and know what a healthy parent-child relationship can looks like. Even if foster care is temporary, the lessons they learn will have an impact on them in the months and years ahead in their development.
Because foster parenting has a low retention rate, it’s important to make sure you have the support you need when starting this journey. A recent study in Families in Society: the Journal of Contemporary Social Services, for example, concludes that foster parents benefit greatly from peer support from other foster parents. Other forms of support, like training before and during your time as a foster parent, can also contribute to higher retention and can prevent burn out.
There are plenty of other ways feel supported in your foster care journey. From individual therapy for your foster child to family therapy sessions, it’s worth reaching out for assistance where you need it most. And while you don’t want to overdo it with the number of support activities, don’t be a afraid to test out different methods and see what works for both you and your family.
If you make sure you as the parent have the support network you need, your foster child will see and sense that. Seeing you stable, healthy, and growing will inspire them—whether they’re aware of it or subconsciously—and offer them the sense of security they need.
For support resources or more information on becoming a foster parent, get in touch with a team member at VQ child and family services today.
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