3 Ways to Foster a Connected Family

If you have been a foster parent for any length of time, you have surely learned that foster parenting is both the best and the hardest thing you’ve ever done. The layers of dynamics and stress that go along with inviting strangers into your home and trying to provide a nurturing environment where they can heal and grow, while continuing to carry around in their bodies and brains the effects of trauma and neglect, is no small feat. To foster parent well requires a significant amount of intention, effort, and work.

Flourishing as a foster family does not happen naturally.

Recently, I invited trauma and adoption therapist Lesley Joy Ritchie to be our guest for a Flourishing Foster Parent coaching call, and she said something that was so important: despite how hard it is, and despite how stressed out we can be much of the time, it is vital that we find a way to connect and enjoy one another every day.

This is much easier said than done.

When you deal with challenging behaviors on a daily basis—lying, tantrums, oppositional or defiant behavior, violence, etc.—it can be very tempting to, in Lesley’s words, “consequence all of the joy out of life.” But that is the most counter-productive thing we can do if we want to help our kids heal and grow emotionally healthy. In fact, one of the hardest parts of trauma-informed parenting is recognizing that, often times, when our instincts tell us to issue a consequence for unacceptable behavior, what our child really needs is an opportunity to connect.

I confess that I have not done well with this over the years. I am someone who is naturally inclined to cancel fun activities as punishment, rather than do the work of letting natural consequences do the teaching. As trauma therapist and fellow foster-adoptive mother Dena Johnson said on another FFP coaching call, “We all want our pound of flesh!” Sometimes it feels good to punish a child who has given us a hard time—but it doesn’t help solve the root cause of their hard behavior.

One of the ways I have attempted to address my own weakness in this area is to create a weekly rhythm of family life that has built-in, non-negotiable opportunities for connection. This way, even if I’m frustrated with one of my kids or a child has really blown it, we still have opportunities to connect, whether we feel like it or not. Here they are!

Family Meals. We eat dinner together every night as a family. It’s one of our stated expectations when new children join our home—we make it clear that everyone is expected to come to the dinner table when the dinner bell rings (yes, I use a dinner bell). If you have an older child who spends most of her time alone in her room, this is one way to guarantee connection with her every day, which is vital if you find it hard to wade through teenage hostility (or even just the laundry on the floor) to connect. We always try to have at least one item on the table that everyone likes (rice, baked potatoes, or bread are staple dinner items, as well as Caesar salad, which everyone in our family likes) and we encourage, but don’t insist, that everyone try everything being offered. Sometimes, we use conversational prompts (such as these from The Family Dinner Project) or just let the chatter run wild. It’s loud, it’s messy—and it’s important to helping the family gather and see one another every day.

Family Movie Night. Every Friday night, we have a Family Movie Night, when we order pizza and watch a movie together. It can be challenging to find movies that appeal to everyone, as our kids range in age from 5-17, but we have managed to do a pretty good job for the most part. There are great Disney Pixar films of course, which are enjoyable for all ages, and we’ve loved introducing some old favorites from our childhood as well (we recently watched Escape to Witch Mountain, which I had forgotten was about two siblings in foster care). The kids and adults always look forward to it, and it’s the one time each week when we are all guaranteed to be gathered together in one room sharing the same activity. Also, we never take away Family Movie Night as a consequence. It’s a vital part of building family connections.

Family Meeting. Once a week, usually on Sundays, we hold a Family Meeting. I have written about our Family Meeting here and shared on YouTube here. (Full disclosure: this has been less structured since the time of quarantine began, as we are together all the time and connecting more throughout the week. That said, my husband and I just committed to restarting the more structured meetings again). Having a time to connect with the whole family, share compliments and appreciations, play board games together, hand out allowance, and review calendar items so everyone is aware of what’s coming up in the week is invaluable fostering family connection and a healthy overall rhythm of family life. We see a huge difference when we skip family meetings.

These are just three things we do consistently to ensure that opportunities to connect happen every week. For kids who come from highly dysfunctional, abusive, or neglectful family systems, the consistency of these positive connections works wonders. It also provides good opportunities to model clear communication, organization, preparation, and planning. And since more is caught than taught, we see our kids imitating the skills they absorb in family meetings, from financial management (we give allowance, but insist that 10% go into a savings account and 10% go into a giving jar) to time management (our kids all understand how to read a calendar and are empowered to consult the family schedule when they wonder what’s happening the the week ahead).

What are some ways you foster connection in your family? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

Photo by Stefan Vladimirov on Unsplash

5 Tips for Vegetarian Foster Parents (with Liz from I Heart Vegetables)

Recently, I had the joy of welcoming vegetarian blogger and foster mama Liz, creator of I Heart Vegetables, to be my guest for a Flourishing Foster Parent Coaching Call. I had asked the community (as I often do) what they wanted to talk about in our Coaching Calls, and two people asked us to address the unique challenges of being a vegan or vegetarian household and complying with the expectations and challenges of foster parenting.

While I love vegetarian food, and could happily live on a plant-based diet, I am not a vegetarian, so I needed to call in an expert. It took me nearly six months to find just the right person to speak to this, so I was delighted to stumble across Liz in a foster parent Facebook group. I became a fan of her blog, stalked her on Instagram, and finally reached out to invite her to join our call. And she said yes!

You can hear the whole call by joining The Flourishing Foster Parent (there are two tiers of membership, neither of which require any kind of long term commitment, and both of which include full access to all thirty-five-plus Coaching Call recordings). But I thought I’d share a few of my takeaways from Liz’s excellent insights—and introduce you to her resources if you’re looking for ways to introduce more veggies to your kids’ lives or just find inspiration for pursuing a healthy lifestyle!

7 Tips for Vegetarian Foster Parents

  1. Give Them What’s Familiar to Start With. The first week or two of a new placement is not the time to introduce an entirely new way of eating to a child who is already in crisis. Instead, help ease their transition by giving them what is familiar. For a vegetarian (or just very health-conscious) foster parent , it might be very difficult, but a trip to McDonald’s or some frozen chicken fingers is a small price to pay to help a child feel more comfortable in what is a terribly uncomfortable season of their lives. Being a foster parent requires a fair amount of flexibility and compromise, and this might be one example of when compromise is required for the sake of a child’s mental health.
  2. Introduce Healthy Options Slowly. Several foster parents I’ve spoken with have found that hummus is a great way to introduce kids to raw veggies. Try making carrot sticks, celery sticks, bell peppers, sugar snap peas, and cucumber slices available with a bowl of hummus. Liz also recommends keeping bananas, apples, and oranges on hand as “anytime snacks.”
  3. Batch Meal Prep & Double the Recipe. To avoid relying on prepared meals or processed foods (which are quick, easy, and oh-so-tempting when things are hectic in the home), batch meal prep and double the recipe to make cooking once, eating twice (or even three times) more feasible. If you have to chop onions for a recipe, chop three and freeze two for quick use later. Same with other veggies (zucchini, bell peppers, carrots, etc.)
  4. Come Up With “Winners” & Make Them Often. Liz admitted that, in the past, she would meal plan with the goal of making something different every day of the month. Now, she recognizes healthy options the kids love and comes back to it frequently. Tacos, Breakfast for Dinner (high-protein waffles and fruit? Yes, please!), and Stir Fry meals are some options that generally go over will with children.
  5. Offer Vegan Alternatives to Popular Snacks. I mentioned on our call that for children on the autism spectrum or with other neurological differences (ADHD, executive function delays, etc.), there is evidence to show that high-protein snacks can be helpful. Liz recommended replacing my go-to cheese sticks and pepperoni sticks with nut butter on crackers, fresh fruit, a handful of nuts, and even cereal as a snack.
  6. Offer Meatless Versions of Familiar Foods. Chickpea pasta (which is higher in protein than regular pasta), meatless burgers (Liz and I both love Beyond Burgers as a satisfying replacement for hamburgers), vegan “chicken” nuggets, and vegan “meatballs” are often as tasty as the real thing and kid-approved. Liz also recommended Right Foods Vegan Ramen and That’s It fruit snacks.
  7. Sneak Veggies Into Other Foods. One member of the Flourishing Foster Parent is not looking to become vegetarian, but is very interested in how to get her kids to eat more veggies. This tried-and-true strategy has been around for a while, and it’s still a great idea. Add riced cauliflower, spinach, or shredded zucchini to fruit smoothies (Liz mentioned that blueberries can often disguise the green color that turns some kids off). Make Liz’s chocolate zucchini muffins for breakfast (“Kids will eat anything with even a tiny bit of chocolate in it!”). Puree mushrooms and zucchini and add them to marinara sauce. I’ve tried that, and my kids love it (and were none the wiser)!

These are just a few of the wonderful insights Liz gave us in our call. We also discussed some of the stigmas around being vegetarian, how to handle it when a child’s parents are not comfortable with her having a plant-based diet (hint: compromise!), and a lot more.

Vegetarian Foster Parents is available in the Flourishing Foster Parent Resource Library. To gain access, select either the Full ($20/month, which includes participation in the live calls) or Library ($10/month) tier on my Patreon page!

Veggie Photo by Nadine Primeau on Unsplash

Fruit Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

8 Tips for Foster Parents Who Work Full-Time

One of the questions I am asked frequently is, “Can you be a foster parent if you work full-time?” I hear from all sorts of people who have heard about the foster parent shortage crisis and want to help out, but worry that it would be too hard to keep their job and be a foster parent. So on Saturday, I hosted my weekly Flourishing Foster Parent Coaching Call with Amy, a single woman who was a foster parent for over ten years while also working full-time as a teacher. She shared some wonderful insights and tips to help foster parents who work full-time not only “make it work” but truly flourish, and help the children in their care flourish as well.

Choose an age demographic carefully. When you are a foster parent, you have a say in the ages of the children who come into your care. For Amy, a newborn or toddler was out of the question. She knew she did not have the bandwidth to manage their needs on top of her own work (and sleep) needs. “I took school-aged children, because their schedule worked with my schedule.” This is good news for the majority of children in foster care, where the average age is 8.

Open your home to sibling sets. Amy always took siblings, because she believed it was better for her kids to have someone from their own family there to play with and stay connected with. “I always took two sisters,” she said, “because I know girls and I have two hands. I figured that way, I could always hold their hands when we were crossing the street.”

Involve your village. Amy was 40 years old when she started her foster parenting journey, and her friends and family were a vital part of her support system. “If one of my kids got sick, I would call my mom to help out so I didn’t have to take as much time off work. Once, I got a call to take two girls, and I had an appointment the evening they were arriving, so some friends came and took the girls out to dinner while I was at my appointment.” Amy also turned to her friends for parenting tips or just a listening ear when things were challenging.

Maintain a structured life, including an early bedtime for the kids. I have written about why kids need structure here. Amy described spending time with her kids every night, reading to them and having very positive, connecting time together each evening. Then, once they were asleep, she could attend to her other tasks: meal prep, grading papers, and taking some time for herself.

Hire a house cleaner. This is just one of the ways you can lighten your load so that you have more time to spend with the kids on the weekends. Another tip I have is to order groceries online, which I often do after my kids are in bed.

Limit extracurricular activities to before-school. Amy’s kids often had family visitation twice a week and therapy once a week after school. That did not leave much time for extracurricular activities. So, Amy looked for activities that mostly took place before school, like running cross-country, so her kids could participate without spreading themselves (or her) too thin.

Keep some vacation days for your own mental health. Amy described periodically taking a vacation day when her kids had school. “I would drop them off at school, then go home and have the house to myself for the day. I would get my nails done, meet a friend for lunch, and just have some ‘me time’ before picking them up from school.” She also encouraged taking the full day off on days her kids’ parents had a court date. “I always attended court. I’ve learned as a foster parent that sometimes, attending court is the only way I can get information about how the kids’ case is progressing. I was also able to advocate on my behalf of the kids. A guardian-ad-litem (GAL) would talk with them for thirty minutes every other month or so, but I knew them better than anyone. I always appreciated when the judge invited me to share. Sometimes I would sit with the foster parents of my kids’ siblings, and then we would go out for lunch afterwards. Connecting with other foster parents was really helpful.”

Get to know the school principal and “become his or her best friend.” One of the common concerns for foster parents who work full-time is, “What happens if they act out at school and I have to leave work to deal with it?” Amy was very forthright in dispelling the myth that all foster youth get in trouble at school, saying that her kids mostly loved school and did really well there. That said, she recommended investing in relationships with school personnel and coming up with a plan for the children’s success at school—including advocating to get the kids placed with teachers who would be most likely to be able to support them through challenging behaviors. (If a child’s behavior is consistently problematic, an IEP might be in order, with special education supports in place to help them be successful and stay at school.)

These are just some of the great tips Amy shared with the members of the Flourishing Foster Parent community. If you would like to hear this or any of the other FFP Coaching Calls, they are all part of The Flourishing Foster Parent Resource Library, available to access for $10/month. Click here to sign up!

Photos by Drew Beamer on Unsplash