3 Things to Do Before Becoming a Foster Parent

Back when we were in the process of becoming licensed to be foster parents, we were focused on the checklist of things we needed to do to prepare. Smoke detectors in every bedroom? Check. Medicines locked up and alcohol out of reach? Check and check. Crib slats the correct distance apart? Yes. Mattress thick enough? Yes.

The list went on.

And on.

And on.

Now, nearly six years and many children and family systems later, I realize that there are a few things that are not part of the required preparation for becoming a foster parent—but should be.

I shared about them in this video, but if you prefer to read rather than watch, here they are:

Listen to, read, and watch resources that amplify the voices of Former Foster Youth (FFY) and Adoptees.

As a new foster parent, I sought out other foster parents, therapists, teachers, social workers, and more in my endeavor to learn and grow, but it was years before I discovered resources that came from the perspective of children in care and/or adoptees (who have a lot in common). Unfortunately, without learning from FFY and adoptees, I was only one side of the story.

As the saying goes, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. But once I started listening to those voices—as I sat on foster care panels and attended workshops and conferences—I realized how vital it is for foster parents to gain some insight into how things look and feel to the kids in their care.

Here are a few places to start. There are more. Some are really hard to read. Some will make you very defensive. You’ll wan to say, “Not all foster parents! Not us!” Don’t do that. Just listen, and try to do better.

Befriend foster parents and offer them support.

My brother and sister-in-law were foster parents for a time. Some cousins of my husband were as well, and we knew of some friends-of-friends who were foster parents. However, we never really discussed foster parenting with them before becoming foster parents, and even then, we didn’t reach out to them much.

What it took me nearly two years to learn, though, was that having friends—close friends—who were also foster parents was huge as we made our way through the ups and downs. Having people we could talk with and confide in was so important in not only surviving but finding a way to thrive in some of the crazy seasons and emotional rollercoasters we found ourselves on!

If you are thinking of becoming a foster parent, start finding support groups to attend. Offer to provide childcare or babysit for a foster family. Get involved before you have children placed in your home.

Study positive parenting practices and learn about trauma-informed parenting.

I meet so many foster parents who are caught completely off guard by the challenges of being the primary caregiver for children who have trauma in their backgrounds. Traditional parenting strategies, which are often dependent on punitive measures for addressing behavioral challenges, simply do not work.

Even if you have raised children of your own, even if you are sure that you know what you’re doing, if you’re planning to parent children with trauma in their past, and you are not equipped with positive, empowering, connecting parenting practices, it will not work.

Do yourself a favor and get some training now. I highly recommend Positive Parenting Solutions,* which is not specific to trauma-informed parenting, but is rooted in empowering kids and helping them experience ongoing positive connection with their parents/caregivers. Other resources can be found at Empowered to Connect and the Karyn Purvis Instititute of Child Development. I have also listed a number of books on my web site, including my favorite, Beyond Consequence, Logic and Control: A Love-Based Approach to Helping Attachment-Challenged Children with Severe Behaviors .*

If you are in the process of becoming a foster parent, or you’re just thinking about it, it’s not likely that anyone will tell you to do these things. However, I can tell you from experience that these suggestions are as important as checking the batteries in those smoke detectors and finding the right size lock boxes for your medicines!

Empowerment + Agency

There are two words that have become very instrumental in shaping the lens through which I understand my role as a foster parent:

EMPOWERMENT and AGENCY.

Empowerment refers to “the process of becoming stronger and more confident, especially in controlling one’s life and claiming one’s rights.”

Agency refers to “a means of exerting power or influence; instrumentality.”

All children need to feel a sense of empowerment and control in their lives. They need to feel like they have a say in the matter, that their voice counts.

All children need this—but children in foster care need this most of all.

Children in foster care have had everything familiar taken from them, as well as the opportunities to have a voice in the biggest aspects of their daily life (where they live, where they go to school, who is taking care of them, etc.) This leaves children feeling frustrated, depressed, angry, and confused.

Foster parents would do well to find ways to help rebuild these kids’ sense of empowerment and agency.

In this video, I give a simple look at how these two concepts inform my approach to children in my care. This is just a starting point, of course—there are so very many ways foster parents can help to give the kids in their care a sense of empowerment and agency. In this video, I talk about how to do it in the home. I did not even begin talking about how to help foster youth feel empowered to advocated for themselves outside your home—with social workers, educators, etc.

I hope you find this insightful as you consider how to support and relate to the children in your care!