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.

4 Tips for School Breaks That Won’t Break YOU!

Are your kids off from school this week? Mine are! Our elementary schoolers are off this whole week. We had parent-teacher conferences today, and then it’s “Camp Krispin” for the rest of the week!

Anytime our kids are out of routine, we can expect the usual Big Feelings to get even bigger. I find that too much “together time” lends itself to increased sibling strife. Whining, attention-seeking behaviors, and general neediness increases with each passing day, and for good reason: kids thrive in structure and predictability. While “going with the flow” might work for you, I can almost guarantee you that it does not work for your kids.

Over the years, I’ve learned what I need to do ahead of time to ensure that school breaks don’t break me. There are four things that I start thinking about and planning the week beforehand to foster a flourishing family environment and help my kids (and me!) have a great break.

#1: I’ll say it again: KIDS THRIVE IN STRUCTURE AND PREDICTABILITY.

Having a Vacation Routine is paramount! Keep routines as normal as possible during breaks. If your kids have a morning routine on school days (and they absolutely should!), keep it as consistent as possible. Getting dressed, eating breakfast, and having some place to be are very helpful in maintaining a sense of structure and consistency.

In our house, routines are a big part of our lives. Thanks to Positive Parenting Solutions, I’ve learned how essential Morning and Bedtime Routines are, and we maintain ours whether or not school is in session.

As for our Vacation Routine, the day always has the following components: meals at normal times, the kids have to be dressed before breakfast, there is some kind of outdoor activity, there is some sort of indoor creative activity (often it’s painting or some other art/craft), there is some sort of afternoon snack, and there is a movie.

I recommend actually writing the plan for the day down and posting it for your kids! If you don’t do that, at the very least, tell them what to expect for the day, with the understanding that things might shift a bit. We emphasize that this is “THE PLAN” for the day, not “THE PROMISE.” The plan might change, but here’s what we’re aiming for. I promise you, it makes a huge difference when the kids know ahead of time what’s coming at them.

Which brings me to…

#2. HAVE SOME PLACE TO GO EVERY DAY.

I know it sounds like a lot of work. I love the idea of lounging in my pajamas all morning, sipping coffee and listening to podcasts. But that doesn’t work for my kids. When we do that, they begin to ramp up and then spiral down into super unpleasantness. Have some place to go by 10:00 AM every day. A playground, the zoo, a walk in the neighborhood, a movie, a museum, a hike, whatever — it doesn’t have to cost anything and it doesn’t have to be fancy or far from home. For us, a picnic and playground are part of our normal routine. It gets the kids up, out, and moving, which is so good for all of us!

#3: PLAN ACTIVITIES.

Sometimes my kids can “just go play.” But often, they can’t. I find that it is very helpful to have activities planned that will keep them creatively engaged throughout the day. Usually, I can dip in and out of the room when they are doing these things—I have to get them started and often have to pop in to help out, but these are things I can also be doing other things (cooking, cleaning, editing, etc.) simultaneously. Some of the activities I have planned for this week include:

  • Painting (I got these easels and these canvases from Amazon and will have a Painting Party at some point this week. Bonus is that these paintings will then become Christmas gifts for grandparents!)
  • Collage-making (I’ve been saving National Geographic Kids, Sunset, and other magazines for them to cut and paste. Bonus: this is great for our kids who need extra OT help with fine motor skills—woot!)
  • Sculpting. This one’s messy, so gird up your loins. But I bought clay like this at Michaels and the kids LOVE making things with it. Once it dries you can easily vacuum up the pieces.
  • Indoor Hide and Seek. This is what I bust out when everyone starts to really grate on each other’s nerves. When the bickering starts to peak, I launch a game of hide and seek. It is a sure-fire winner every time.
  • Board Games. Uno (OK, I know that’s a card game), Race for the Treasure, Outfoxed, Sequence for Kids, Settlers of Catan, and BINGO are some of our favorites.
  • LEGOs. I’ve become savvy to the fact that I can’t say, “Go play with LEGOs” and expect results. However, if I set up a LEGO party on the dining room table, with bins easily accessible and front and center, two of my kids will sit and build for at least an hour or more. I have most of our household’s LEGOs in plastic drawers on wheels. I can easily wheel them out and then wheel them back into the boys’ bedroom (where they live most of the time) when they’re finished.
  • Playdates! I find it really helpful to plan to meet up with other kids or even to host an additional child for a few hours to break up the monotony of siblings being together 24/7.

For the record, sometimes I plan all these things, and the kids start playing something totally independently (Spy Academy, Zombie Apocalypse, School, and Family are their favorite made-up games). But it is absolutely essential for me to have a plan in case they are struggling to play well together. Again, being off routine and having too much together time are often a recipe for our kids to struggle.

In fact, I can predict that around 3:00 each day, my kids will start to struggle. (They don’t call it “The Witching Hour” for nothing!) They will be getting tired, they will have been together all day, and they will be grating on one another’s last nerve. That’s when I have the most structured activity, like painting, or give them a movie while I make dinner.

And last but not least is…

#4 SET REALISTIC EXPECTATIONS.

If you have more than one child, it’s going get loud! It’s going to get crazy! Everyone is going to need to practice their deep breathing and mindfulness and trips to the Calming Corner—ESPECIALLY US PARENTS! This is when it is more important than ever that we set our intentions for the day and take time to pray and welcome help from on high. Our ability to model patience and restraint when the volume is turned up and the tantrums are turned on will play a huge part in how the kids handle their dysregulated moments. Being proactive with structure and anticipating (and planning for) the harder parts of the day will make all the difference.

This is how I handle school breaks and vacation days. How about you? What helps your family flourish when you’re off your usual routine?

Top Photo by Allen Taylor on Unsplash. Bottom Photo from my Instagram Feed.

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Creating a “Memory Box” For Your Foster Children

One of the things I’ve heard over and over from former foster children is that they often miss out on having keepsakes and mementos from their childhood, especially if they’ve been moved between several homes. Many of us take it for granted that we have baby pictures, grade school projects, and other mementos from our early years—but not a child who was in foster care. Sometimes, entire years of their lives are undocumented because of so many moves.

I remember when our first foster children arrived. I had every intention of maintaining nice scrap books for them. But then reality hit—there was no way I was going to keep up with a scrap book! So I came up with a different idea: Memory Boxes!

It’s been nearly six years, and I still maintain Memory Boxes for each of the kids who is with us for more than a couple of weeks. This past weekend, I had a chance to speak with a woman whose children were in foster care for six months (and have been reunified). She told me that it meant a lot to her that her children’s foster parents gave her photos and mementos from the time her children were away from her. Memory Boxes are not just for the children in our care—they’re for their parents, too.

Here is my (very simple) system for keeping track of mementos for each of our kids. This video is old (no, I didn’t cut my hair—this is what I looked like in 2015!), but it’s still my practice all these years later! The boxes I used in this video are no longer available, but these* would work well!

Hope you find it helpful!

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