TAGS: Becoming A Foster Parent
Written by Washington Foster Team
Welcoming a teen foster child into one’s home is an experience that comes with unique challenges and joys. The first few weeks are an important period for establishing mutual trust and respect. Because children are still acclimating to their new environment during those weeks, it’s a time that can be especially tough for both parents and children.
Older foster children typically have trust issues and associated trauma. Some have already been placed in multiple homes by the time they arrive at yours. This can give them the perspective that any new relationships or situations in their lives are only temporary.
Beginning to heal old wounds
The right start can lead to ongoing healing and relationship building.
One of your goals, as a foster parent, is to help your foster child gain the confidence they need to break past patterns, accept support, and build long-term relationships. This will have a positive impact on their:
- Future families
- Personal goals
It can feel like an intimidating task, which is why we’ve put together this collection of tips and approaches to not only help you break the ice but also assist you in making an older foster child feel comfortable in your home.
1. Prepare For Those Opening Conversations
Clear, unambiguous communication is an important tool for foster parents. It helps kids feel more relaxed and stable, as they don’t have to interpret or guess your meaning.
The process of discovery
It’s a good idea to set up a casual interview when your foster child first arrives. Prepare a list of questions in advance to help you understand their interests and needs. For example:
- Have they lived with animals in the past? How do they feel about animals?
- What’s their favorite food?
- What hobbies and interests do they have?
- What’s their favorite color?
Typically it’s wise to keep things calm and let them settle in for a few days, but then you can begin doing activities together, such as bringing them to a museum if they enjoy art or cooking their favorite meal.
Building a fresh start
One of the great things about taking in older foster kids is that you can have more transparent conversations with them. It’s a chance to be welcoming and authentic.
But Foster Care Specialist Kristina Rivera recommends, “Don’t try to fake your way through a relatable circumstance.”
Foster children often feel defined by labels and/or have a sense that they’ve already been defined by their past. Express the fact that you view their time at your home as a new beginning. You’re not judging them on the choices they’ve made, the things their parents might have said or done, the number of places they’ve lived, or the information written in their file. Rather, you’re excited to help them write a new chapter in their story.
“Do you want to invest in this relationship?”
Your foster child should know that you’re invested in them. You’re aware your time together won’t always be easy, but you’re here for them. You hope that they will also invest in the relationship with you. Setting that expectation up front can cut through a lot of assumptions as well as prevent needless pain and time.
But, be prepared that not every child will be ready to take that step.
2. This Isn’t Something You Can Do Alone
If you possess a desire to foster, then you need the support of a community. Fostering is difficult and shouldn’t be attempted alone. Receiving support allows you to avoid burnout, gain perspective, and build patience.
Community is also important because, as a foster parent, odds are you will receive a lot of mixed messages. Some sources imply that you’re supposed to tough it out on your own, no matter how unstable your home becomes. But, when things get hard, you have to be willing to reach out for help. For example, reaching out to a social worker is a great way to get additional assistance, or it might be necessary to get in touch with the supervisor to move the child into a more effective situation, if needed. Consider the people in your older youth’s life who are also available to reach out to, such as a mentor, teacher, coach, or school guidance counselor.
3. Be Patient And Don’t Expect Perfection
It’s natural to have a lot of expectations when you enter into fostering, and some of your expectations won’t match up with reality. In fostering, there are natural ups and downs. Some moments can be wonderful, but there’s also a lot of hardship along the way. Relationships take time to develop and space to unfold.
Kids need permission to adjust and work through their fears, without the added pressure of living up to an immediate ideal. You might also make mistakes and fall short of your own expectations.
The best approach is to:
- Be patient
- Understand that you’re not a savior
- Remember you’re a safe place and that’s the best thing you can possibly be
4. Adaptability Is Key
Adaptability is the cure to letting your expectations get out of control. As with the rest of life, things rarely go as expected — and the ability to learn, adjust, and adapt is an excellent quality for a foster parent. Rigidity will never be as helpful as the ability to adapt to a changing situation.
For example, foster parents frequently request specific age groups, but that preference may evolve over time. There are also times when a child’s specific needs or experience might be different than anticipated, requiring an adjustment in rules or approach.
Behavior is communication.
While you can and should tell your foster child that you care about them, the way you’re able to adapt to their needs will express that message even more effectively than words.
5. Don’t Be Afraid To Get Attached
People who are considering fostering sometimes express, “I wish I could do that, but I’m scared of becoming attached.”
Become attached! There are so many different ways in which your attachment and emotional investment will benefit foster kids. Don’t be afraid to put your heart on the line. Parents aren’t the only people who can have a positive impact on a foster child’s life. Perhaps, while you’re waiting to become a foster parent, you can offer value as a mentor, cook a meal, or give a foster parent some time off. These are also great options for anyone interested in providing support to their foster community!
Utilize your strengths. These could be any number of things, including adaptability, communication, community building, and/or a little extra time. Whether or not you feel you’re currently well-suited to fostering, there are ways for you to contribute.
As Kristina Rivera recommends, “Get involved, get attached, but do it within who you are and the structure of what you have to offer. You have something to offer.”