4 Tips for Encouraging Good Relationships Between Your Kids and Your Foster Kids

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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?

Photo by Rene Bernal on Unsplash.

New Year, New Self Care Plan [Free Printable]

Whenever I have an opportunity to offer advice to new foster parents, I find myself coming back to the same thing: be intentional about taking care of yourself. It is so easy to get wrapped up in the challenges of foster parenting and suddenly find yourself empty, stressed out, exhausted, and at the mercy of many factors that are completely out of your control. As we have heard many times, you can’t give what you don’t have. You can’t pour from an empty bucket. Put your own oxygen mask on before helping others. Or, as Sufi philosopher and poet Rumi is often quoted, “Never give from the depths of your well, but from your overflow.” Sadly, too many foster parents are just barely surviving the day. Especially new foster parents find themselves crushed under the weight of trauma-related behaviors, unreturned calls to social workers, misinformation, no information, abrupt placement changes, lack of resources, and—hardest of all—lack of community with people who understand the often surreal experience of being a foster parent.

As we finish up 2019 and head into 2020, I invite you in to my year-end process of reflection and planning for personal flourishing in the midst of what is promised to be a chaotic and stressful path. Looking back on the year behind us is a good thing—what went well? What was hard? What, with the benefit of hindsight, could I have done differently? What lessons have I learned for next time? It’s good to sit with some of those reflections.

Looking at the year ahead is also important. While we can’t possibly know what tomorrow holds, if we are foster parents, we can be nearly certain that there are going to be a lot of ups and downs, they will often come without warning, and no one is going to fight for our personal well-being as much as we can.

One area of planning I am doing—and want to encourage you to do—is to create an intentional and robust Self-Care Plan.

This is not about pampering yourself—this is about planning to flourish in the midst of what is sure to be a very, very challenging home life if you are a foster parent. Even with a child who does not struggle with hard behaviors, there are all the outside stressors involved with foster parenting. There’s no way around it: foster parenting, under the best of circumstances, is stressful. We need to plan for how we will flourish despite that.

Toward the end of 2019, I hosted a live Coaching Call for foster parents entitled, “New Year, New Self Care Plan.” In that call, I talked through six “Fields of Flourishing” I’ve recognized as areas of my life that require regular attention if I am going to stay strong and avoid burnout. These areas include:

  • Heart | Soul | Mind | Intentions
  • Nutrition
  • Physical Rhythms of Exertion & Rest
  • Tools
  • Relationships
  • Supports | Systems | Simplifiers

If you would like to download the little guide I use to create a robust and intentional self-care plan, in which I offer some questions to reflect on to help guide your plan, here it is! My gift to you 🙂

There are going to be some really hard times in the year ahead. I hope you have a community of people you connect with regularly who understand the unique challenges you face as a foster parent. It is so important to know you’re not walking this path alone! There are also going to be some wins! It’s important to share those too! No one understands the victories of foster parenting like other foster parents!

I am excited about this new year and how we can help one another grow and stay encouraged as we walk this road that is so needed in our world. I wish foster parents weren’t necessary—but we are, and as long as there are kids in foster care, there will be foster parents who need to keep sharpening our tools and finding encouragement from one another.

Here’s to a wonderful new year. Thank you for reading and following A Fostered Life. I hope to connect with more of you in 2020!

Photo by Anthony Tran on Unsplash

All Kids Need is Love (and by Love I Mean Structure)

First, a disclaimer: I am not a child psychologist or therapist. I’m just a mom and foster caregiver who has become somewhat obsessed with the lay scholarship of child development in order to understand the children who come and go from our home. I read books and articles in order to discover what our kids need from us in order to thrive. I listen to conference talks and podcasts, culling ideas for helping our kids flourish in our care and beyond. And I study children—in our home, of course, but also at my children’s school, at church, in the grocery store, and pretty much everywhere else I have a chance to interact with children.

All of my “studying” of late has brought me to this one idea, and it pretty much guides my every (good) parenting move:

What kids need more than anything is love, and what feels most like love to a child is structure.

The reason for this is rooted in science. People who study these things have concluded that there are four stages of cognitive development in children:

  1. Sensorimotor Stage: Birth through about 2 years. During this stage, children learn about the world through their senses and the manipulation of objects.
  2. Preoperational Stage: Ages 2 through 7. During this stage, children develop memory and imagination. They are also able to understand things symbolically, and to understand the ideas of past and future.
  3. Concrete Operational Stage: Ages 7 through 11. During this stage, children become more aware of external events, as well as feelings other than their own. They become less egocentric, and begin to understand that not everyone shares their thoughts, beliefs, or feelings.
  4. Formal Operational Stage: Ages 11 and older. During this stage, children are able to use logic to solve problems, view the world around them, and plan for the future.

    Source: LearningRx.com

Unfortunately, when a child is born into the circumstances that often lead to being placed in foster care—neglect and/or physical abuse—it is not at all uncommon for them to have missed out on the nurturing and input that form the stages. For this reason, they are often what we call “delayed.” A child begins learning emotional regulation as an infant gazing into her mother’s eyes, reading her expressions and imitating them. Without that input and interaction, her little brain misses out on some vital brain development. This prevents her from moving into the next stage. This is evident in a six- or seven- or ten-year-old who still puts everything in his mouth like a one-year-old exploring his world, or who demonstrates a total lack of ability to play imaginatively. This is evident in a twelve-year-old who is not able to see past himself, or a fourteen-year-old who still responds to frustration with toddler-like whining and even full-blown tantrums.

I’ve seen this so very much, in my own kids and in the stories I hear from others, and before I understood the stages of brain development and the role neglect and abuse play in stunting that development, I spent a lot of time feeling frustrated by children who didn’t “act their age.”

My solution to the hard challenge of being a caregiver for children who have suffered early childhood neglect/abuse/trauma? Structure.

A structured life provides a child with a sense of safety and predictability. A structured life forms new habits in a child, which forms new brain paths. Repetition reconditions a child’s brain, and while no one can go back in time and protect a child from the things they lost or suffered, we can begin today, through being intentional about offering them a structured life, to teach them new things—to re-train their brain with new neuropathways that they missed out on the first time around.

And when we do this, over time, the child begins to feel a sense of being loved. Because for a child, love feels like stability. Love feels like positive predictability. Love feels like control. Love feels like safety. “I know what’s coming at me. We don’t have a lot of surprises here. I can predict what’s happening, and that makes me feel safe.” From that place of feeing safe, a child’s brain can begin to develop those vital cognitive pathways.

Here are a few ideas of what structure can look like.

  1. Consistent sleep. Kids need to go to bed at the same time and get up at the same time as often as possible. It is not good or helpful for children to be inconsistent with their sleep habits, because it affects the health of their brain (ours too!) and emotional regulation. And a child lacks the executive function to be able to decide for himself when and how much he needs to sleep. That’s the job of his caregiver.
  2. Healthy diet. “You are what you eat,” is a phrase I remember hearing as a child, and truer words have never been spoken. We need to provide our kids with healthy options and minimize the junk they have access to. As I put it, “I want to get good stuff into my kids’ bodies.” There are some foods that are known to contribute to healthy brain development—protein, fiber, and healthy fats seem to be key.
  3. Daily physical rigor. Kids need to run. Plain and simple, kids need to move their bodies and explore their world. When a toddler is begging for his mom’s attention and his mom hands him a smartphone over and over again, his body and brain are not getting the input and interaction he needs for healthy brain development. Kids need to run and experience the interaction of play—rolling a ball back and forth or playing tag or getting the feedback of “watch this, Mom!” all contribute to healthy brain function.
  4. Reading together every day. Bedtime Books is one of the best habits you can give your child, for so very many reasons. Reading to your child accomplishes so much! Physical touch (cuddling on a couch or bed as you look at a book together), language development (all those words! Formed into correct syntax and grammar!), and imagination formation (stories, characters, beautiful imagery) are just the start of what reading together does for a child.
  5. A consistent schedule. Kids thrive in predictability. As early as two or three years old, children can understand the rhythms of life—daily and weekly schedules. Daily: get up, eat breakfast, get dressed, brush our teeth, go to the car for school or preschool or church. Weekly: go to school some days, go to church or temple or the mosque some days, have a Saturday at home. Even with the unstructured nature of weekends and holidays, we can (and do) create “holiday structure,” keeping to our sleep and diet practices as we communicate the plan for the day (this morning we’re going to be home. You can play together. After lunch, we’re going to clean the house together. You will be responsible for your bedroom (following your bedroom cleaning plan—structure!). Tonight we will have pizza for dinner and watch a movie.) Simply giving them the plan for an unusual day can make the difference between successful emotional regulation or chaos and emotional meltdowns.

Is this fool-proof? Not at all. Kids will still have their moments. So will adults. But in my experience, and based on my research, we’re on to something when we begin to embrace the vital importance of structure for our children and do our best to offer it to them—with (and because of) love.

One way we practice structure in our home is through the use of visual charts. I have made a few of the ones we use available here to give you ideas or a starting point. Feel free to print and use them!

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash