One of the most common inquiries I receive from prospective foster parents is a request for advice on how to help prepare existing children in a home (i.e. their biological children) to welcome a foster child into their home and become a fostering family. There is a lot to say about that, and I would love to some day work with my children to create a resource that would address this important topic. However, for now, there are four simple (but important) things I’ve learned over the years that play a significant role in helping create a peaceful-ish environment for all of the children in our home—those who share our last name, and those who don’t.
First, this may sound strange, but hear me out: I have learned to never give my foster children my own children’s hand-me-down clothes and to never give my existing children my foster child’s hand-me-down clothes or toys. It took me two times of getting it wrong to figure this one out, but once I did, it made perfect sense.
First, from the existing child’s perspective: when a new foster child enters our home, he or she gets a lot of attention right off the bat, which can feel threatening to existing children. They know their “place” in the family system, and that position is disrupted with the addition of a new child. This causes the existing child to sense a threat and react accordingly. When my child sees a new foster child wearing his or her clothes (even clothes that they have long-since outgrown), it reinforces the threat.
It’s just not worth it.
When your child outgrows his or her clothes, donate them or sell them at a consignment shop. Then hit your local thrift stores, Buy Nothing/Freecycle group, Target, or Old Navy and get them what they need.
By the same token, if your foster child comes with clothes that they outgrow, do not put those clothes on your younger child. Your foster child comes into your home with very little of what’s “theirs.” They already have a social disadvantage among the other children in the home. Don’t add to it by putting what was theirs on your child. Even if the clothes don’t fit them anymore, I have found that it is very hard for a foster child to see his clothes on your child. Just pack up his clothes, return it to his mom or keep it for when they reunify and she can decide what to do with it, or you can give it to his case manager, who can then save it or donate it for other kids in care.
The bottom line is, don’t do hand-me-downs. Let each child have his or her own clothes. This does not have to be expensive. I do most of my clothes shopping at thrift stores or get hand-me-downs from friends and Buy Nothing. In truth, I spend very little on clothes. But the important thing is that the clothes are new to them.
The only caveat is if your child or your foster child suggests sharing their clothes. If they suggest it and want to do it, go for it. I witnessed a very sweet exchange between our six-year-old foster son and our four-year-old son when the older child offered the younger one his tee shirt, which had grown too small for him. It worked because it was his idea. He was empowered by the fact that he made the decision of what to do with something that was his. But it doesn’t work when I decide for him.
Secondly, do whatever it takes to have one-on-one time with each of your children every day. When I say “each of your children,” I mean every child living under your roof. In Positive Parenting Solutions (and in our home), we call it “Special Time.”
Special Time is defined as one-on-one time between a parent and child, ideally for 15 minutes twice a day. In our house, this looks like any of the following:
- Reading books at bedtime
- Playing a board game or a card game
- Playing with my hair (one child in particular just loves to play with hair!)
- Sitting on the couch and talking about whatever the child wants to discuss
- Looking at pictures together on my computer
- Taking the dog for a walk together
- Bringing their allowance money to the thrift store (there are two very close to our house) or Dollar Tree or Walgreens and letting them buy something of their choosing
- Going out for breakfast, lunch, or ice cream, just the two of us
- Watching gymnastics or dance class (as opposed to dropping the child off, or staying and reading a book or scrolling Facebook while they’re in class. This only counts as Special Time if, when the child looks over to see if you’re watching, you are watching.
- Playing with Hot Wheels (building the tracks, making up stories for the cars)
- Playing with LEGOs
A few key points about Special Time are these:
- You are completely focused on the child. No phones, no scrolling Facebook, just total attention on your child for at least fifteen minutes or so.
- The child leads the activity (within reason). The child chooses the activity, and you play according to the child’s rules. For example, I have one child who really likes to play games, but only when he wins. He gets very emotional when he loses. During Special Time, if he wants to change the rules so he wins every time, I let him. Normally, we reinforce being a good sport, win or lose, but the whole point of Special Time is not to build character, it’s to connect in a positive way with your child. (I said “within reason” because sometimes a child wants to go out for ice cream, but I only have fifteen minutes, so we need to choose an activity at home that we can do within fifteen minutes. Other times, I have flexibility to be gone a half hour for an ice cream.)
- You are looking at your child as much as possible, and they are looking at you. Kids crave our attention and positive reactions as much as they crave food and air. Let them have it. I’m going to write more about the importance of gazing between you and your child, but for now, I’ll simply say, it’s important that they see you looking at them with affection and delight. Will you always feel affection and delight? Nope. But something wonderful happens over time when you are intentional about looking at your child in the face and letting them see you enjoying them. So dig deep on those days it’s a little harder to do, and make it happen. When I’m watching my daughter’s gymnastics class, the pull to check my phone or try to catch up on seminary reading is strong. But I know it is so important to her that she sees me watching her and giving her a smile and “thumbs up” when she checks in with me, so I resist.
Next, do not compare children or hold one child up as the example for others to follow. All this accomplishes is embittering children toward one another. That’s not to say we shouldn’t acknowledge when a child is showing cooperation or behaving well. I often look one of my children in the eyes and say, “Thank you for doing what I asked the first time I asked. I really appreciate your cooperation!” But don’t say, “Look at how well Jimmy did what I asked. I wish everyone was more like Jimmy!” You’re not doing Jimmy any favors with comments like that, and you’ll probably spark some resentment in the other kids too.
Finally, play with all the kids together. I’ll be straight with you: my kids fight a lot. Some mornings, it starts as soon as more than one is awake. There is a lot of competition and vying for attention in our house. But over the years, the fighting has been increasingly tempered by times of playing well together and genuinely enjoying one another, and I think a big part of that is thanks to the times we jump in and play with all of them together. Hide and Seek, LEGOs, Hot Wheels, board games, etc. are all more peaceful when my husband and/or I are involved.
Sometimes it’s about modeling healthy social dynamics: taking turns, celebrating when the other person wins, that kind of thing. But other times we’re able to help a child who struggles to regulate their emotions recognize the warning signs in time to catch a major meltdown, or to coach a child into showing mercy rather than revenge. Not always, of course, but sometimes!
A lot could be said about how to help encourage a symbiotic dynamic between existing children in a home and new children who come in through foster care. However, for me, these four simple things play a significant role in helping create an environment for all of the children in your home—those who share your last name, and those who don’t—to live at peace and develop genuine affection for one another.
If you are a foster parent, what would you add to this list? What are some ways you have encouraged peace between your existing children and new children who join your household?