13 Phrases to Say to a Foster Parent (and Why)

people laughing and talking outside during daytime

Last week I shared a post on A Fostered Life’s Facebook page entitled, “7 Phrases Not to Say to a Foster Parent (and Why),” in which Dr. John DeGarmo, a parenting and foster care expert, shares seven common (and unfortunate) things people say to foster parents frequently. I encouraged my fellow foster parents to share the article to their Facebook profiles as means of gently alerting (or correcting) their friends and family members who might be tempted to say some of these things too. I also shared it to my personal profile.

A few of my friends thanked me for the heads up, but one came back with a request. My friend Ann wrote, “Would love a follow up article on what is acceptable/ appreciated to say. I understand the don’t’s, but do’s would be helpful!”

I am so grateful for friends who are with me for the journey, and who want to do a great job of being a supportive foster parent friend! You don’t know what you don’t know, and many people simply don’t know what is helpful (or unhelpful) to say.

In honor of that request, I came up with a list of my own. I hope you find this helpful!

1. I’m praying for your foster child.

I am a huge believer in the importance of training and strategies when it comes to equipping ourselves to care for hurting children. However, training and strategies can only go so far. When a child’s spirit has been broken by the devastation of foster care, or when a child’s brain has been compromised due to substance exposure, neglect, or abuse, training and strategies are not enough.

What we need are miracles.

Everyday miracles and miracles every day.

We need peace that passes understanding to land in our children’s hearts. We need inner healing to come to them. And I believe that happens, in large part, thanks to people praying.

When someone says, “I’m praying for your foster child,” I know that they know what’s up. They know we need a miracle. And I love knowing I’m not the only one crying out to God on behalf of my children.

2. I’m praying for you.

Being a foster parent is like getting on a roller coaster with a blindfold on. You experience highs, for sure, but you also experience a lot of jarring lows, and most of the time you don’t see them coming. Foster parenting has brought out the best of me in many ways, but it has also brought out the worst. In the six years we’ve been foster parents, our family has been in various forms of therapy a number of times, I have been on medication to manage anxiety, and I even went through a pretty intense program to work through some of my own apparent triggers (which I never knew I had until I became a foster parent).

When someone says, “I’m praying for you,” I know they know. They know it’s hard, they know I’m trying, and they know I need a lot of help from God.

3. I’m praying for your family.

Are you starting to see a theme here? Good. Prayer, prayer, and more prayer!

When someone is a foster parent, their children become part of a fostering family. Foster parenting does not happen in a vacuum. When a new child enters (or exits) your home, it affects everyone.

When someone says they are praying for our family, it communicates to me that they see the whole picture. They know that our kids’ lives are disrupted every time a new child comes or goes and that our attention is now divided a bit more. And while I maintain that I think it can be very good for kids to grow up in a family that practices the hospitality of foster care, I’m also the first to acknowledge that it costs them. Knowing that others are praying for my kids means the world to me.

4. I’m praying for your foster child’s mom and dad.

I remember the first time my mom said this to me. It was early in our journey, and our first kids were still on a reunification track. My mom was in town for a visit, and she came with me to drop the kids off for a visit with their mom. Later that week, during a session with our parenting coach, the conversation turned to speculation on the outcome of our kids’ case. I expressed my fears about their future if they reunified and their mom did not stay clean. “We just have to pray for her,” my mom said. “I pray for the kids, I pray for you, and I pray for her.”

That day, I started praying for her too.

When we are focused on the children who are in our homes, it’s easy to forget that their parents are also on a very hard journey. The circumstances that led them to this place mean they need a lot of prayer. When someone says they’re praying for my foster child’s parents, it tells me that they see the bigger picture and have compassion not just for our kids, but for their parents as well.

5. How did you decide to become a foster parent?

This is a great one, because it deflects invasive questions about foster children and gives a foster parent a chance to share as much of their own story as they feel comfortable sharing without compromising their kids’ privacy. It’s also a great opportunity to learn about foster care!

6. What have been the best and hardest parts of foster parenting?

Again, this question expresses genuine interest in learning about a person’s experience as a foster parent, but without directing invasive questions about specific children. Foster parenting is a world of trials and triumphs. Ask your foster parent friend to share some of both with you.

7. Can I bring you lunch?

I remember it like it was yesterday: I was standing in my living room holding the baby. Our licensor as en route to our house because we had just been deemed “a family in crisis.” One of our children was completely out of control, and we were wholly unprepared and unequipped to handle what was coming at us. On top of that, I had a horrific headache, which turned out to be the first sign of flu. As I waited in the living room for the social worker to arrive, my phone rang. It was my friend, Mike.

“Hey! I was thinking I’d pick up some Zippy’s burgers for you. Can I bring lunch?” I burst into tears and asked him to get soup instead. He arrived at my door with pho a little while later, and that gift of timely grace nourished my body and my soul. Not only did he bring food, but he stayed and listened patiently as I unloaded all of my frustration. I was sick, tired, and deeply disappointed in how things were going. He was there at just the right time.

That was one of a few times someone has shown up with food at just the right time. Calling to say, “Can I bring you lunch?” or “What time can I bring dinner by?” means the world to a “family in crisis.”

8. What time should I bring dinner?

See #5 above. This is my favorite replacement for, “Let me know if there is anything I can do.” In my experience, most people are not actually going to let you know if there is anything you can do, because figuring out what you can do to help is just too much work when the spit is hitting the fan. If you really want to help, tell your friend how you’re going to help. And if you can’t think of anything, just ask them what time you can drop off dinner.

9. I can’t imagine what this is like. If you ever want to talk, I’m here to listen!

Notice I didn’t say, “If you ever want to talk, I’m here to give you my opinions!” 🙂 Sometimes we just need to vent. We aren’t looking for advice, opinions, or (heaven forbid) comments about it maybe being time to stop being a foster parent. We just need someone who cares and wants to carry some of the burden with us.

I have so many people who do this for me. Ellen, Mike, Gail, Don, Karen, and, of course, Mom, to name a few. They’re safe, they’re willing to listen, and I know that they understand that I’m a verbal processor. Sometimes I Just need to talk it out!

10. That’s so tough. But if anyone can do it, you can.

Some days are so discouraging. The desired outcomes of all of the time spent in therapy, making checklists, practicing positive, trauma-informed parenting techniques, and doing our faltering best to give our kids a home life in which they can flourish simply don’t happen. Trauma is deep inside our kids’ bodies, and when they struggle, we all struggle. Kids have triggers, and parents do too. Some days, when I’m triggered, I am so discouraged by my own failure to keep my cool and model the words and actions I want to offer my kids.

A little affirmation goes a long way, especially on the hardest days.

11. Can I come play with the kids and read to them while you get some things done around the house?

My friend Ellen comes to our house with a bag of books to read with the kids. She keeps them interested and entertained while I get dinner ready or do laundry. Sometimes she sits with some of the kids while I run one to gymnastics or a therapy appointment. Her presence in our home and her investment in our kids is so beautiful. I have one particular child who struggles with his self-worth, and sometimes, to encourage him, we make a list of all the people who love him. Ellen is often at or near the top of that list. She shows up. She spends time. And he knows she loves him.

She never waits for me to invite her. She sends a text and lets me know when she’ll be in the area (she lives a ways out, so it works best when she has a reason to be on our side of town).

I love it.

12. Can I babysit so you and your spouse can go out for dinner?

Marriage maintenance. Need I say more?

13. What do you need? (or, What do your kids need?)

When all else fails, “What do you need?” and/or “How can I help?” and/or “What do your kids need?” is always appropriate! To be clear, this is not the same thing as, “Let me know if there is anything I can do to help.” This is a question that demands an answer, and if you ask me this question, I will say something like, “Could I drop E and M with you while I take I or N to therapy?”

I remember a particularly challenging season in our foster parenting journey, when someone asked me, “How can I help?” I said, “Could you take M out for a bit so I can spend some one-on-one time with I?” Our child was really struggling and I felt like every interaction we had was negative. I wanted to spend some time with him that could be devoted to just connecting. It was exactly what we needed that day.

There are some things you should not say to a foster parent. But there are plenty of things you absolutely should say to them!

This list is a good place to start.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Some Thoughts for National Adoption Awareness Month

November is National Adoption Awareness Month (NAAM), “a month set aside to raise awareness about the urgent need for adoptive families for children and youth in foster care.” You can read about the history of NAAM here.

The focus on NAAM is not adoption, per se, but adoption from foster care. There are thousands and thousands of children across our country who, for all sorts of reasons, will never be able to go home to their families of origin. While many of them will age out by choice, and some don’t want to be adoptive, many others desperately want to be part of a family that will be there forever. They want parents who will become grandparents for their kids. They want a home to go to for Thanksgiving and Christmas. They want to be part of a family—they want to be adopted.

Every November, various foster care agencies across the country promote the adoption of children and youth from foster care into permanent, loving families. I’m so grateful for their work. I’m grateful that families are formed in all sorts of ways, and as a foster and adoptive mother, I’m grateful for my kids and the family we are forming together.

That said, it’s important for those of us who are adopting children to keep in mind that, even when adoption is a happy ending, it’s not the end of the story. Adoption—the need for adoption—is rooted in profound sorrow, loss, and pain.

In this video, I share a bit of my heart for the children in my care and the thousands of others who are affected by adoption, including the women and families of origin who were unable to raise their own children. Even when adoption was the “best” option, it’s still an option that carries a lot of loss and pain, and that loss and pain doesn’t go away.

I’m a fan of adoption. As I shared in this video, there is a lot of grace and beauty in adoption. But we must never forget, especially as we promote adoption during NAAM, that there is also a lot of sorrow and pain in adoption, and our kids need us to hold that with them, even as we love and celebrate their place in our families.

3 Ways to Support Your Foster Child’s Mom on Mother’s Day

Photo by Kane Taylor on Unsplash

Can you imagine how hard Mother’s Day is for women whose children are in foster care?

In just a few days, many people will be celebrating Mother’s Day. In my experience getting to know many of the women whose children have been in our care, I’ve learned that the weight of shame and hopelessness is utterly debilitating. Adding a holiday—especially a holiday meant to celebrate their role as a mother—to that despair is brutally crushing for many women.

In our foster parent training, we were not encouraged to do much for the women whose children are in our care. Beyond perhaps maintaining a visitation journal in the diaper bag, I don’t recall any suggestions for supporting our foster children’s mothers.

In my years as a foster parent, however, I have had occasion to get to know several of our kids’ moms. I have also gotten to hear mothers of foster youth speak in various settings, and now I am passionate about encouraging foster parents to do more to encourage and support the women whose children are in our care.

Here are a few ways you could support your foster child’s mom, especially on Mother’s Day:

Write her a card. If your foster child’s mom is diligently working toward reunification—showing up for visits, attending rehab or other programs mandated by her reunification plan, dropping her UAs, etc.—you might write something like this:

Dear ____,

I just wanted to take a moment to write and express my support for you. I cannot imagine how hard this journey has been for you, and how especially hard it will be this weekend as Mother’s Day rolls around. I want you to know how impressed we are by how hard you’re working to get ___ back. I’m sure what you’re doing often feels like an uphill battle, but you’re doing it! Keep it up. We are with you and for you. ____ loves you very much. We are with you and for you and for your reunification.

Love,

If your foster child’s mom is out of touch, not making progress, not showing up for visits, etc., you can still make an effort to encourage her with something like this:

Dear ___,

I wanted to reach out and let you know we are thinking of you as Mother’s Day approaches. I can only imagine how hard this season has been for you. While we haven’t been in touch in a while, I wanted to tell you we are with you and for you and pulling for your recovery. You have some amazing kids, and we long to see you reconnect with them! They are doing well here, but I know they miss you. You are in our prayers.

Love,

Writing a letter to honor her as their mother, to express your support, and to try to protect her dignity is one way to support a woman whose children are in your care.

Have the children make her a gift. If your foster child sees his or her mom for visits, encourage them to make a gift for her for Mother’s Day. This reminds them that, even if they are not living with her, she is still their mother and they can still do something special for her. Some ideas are coloring a picture, painting a picture frame (and putting his own photo in the frame), a scented candle or vase of flowers.

If a mother is not in touch or is not showing up for visits, encourage the child to write a letter or draw a picture for her. Perhaps you can give this to the case manager with the promise that she will pass it along when she sees their mom.

When a woman’s child is in foster care, she feels isolated and alone. Those around her celebrating Mother’s Day adds insult to injury. Help her children honor her with a gift—even if she gets it after the fact. Even months later, knowing her children (and you!) were thinking of her will mean something.

Arrange a phonecall or video chat on Mother’s Day. Again, this would only be appropriate if she is making regular visits with her child and remains in her life. If the mother has been absent from the child’s life for any length of time, I would not suggest making Mother’s Day an occasion for a phonecall. That said, if visitation is happening, make sure they get to connect, at least by phone, on Mother’s Day.

These are just a few ideas for simple, low-touch ways to support your foster child’s mom on Mother’s Day. These actions do not require awkward interactions or any real engagement (though I do encourage foster parents to engage with their foster children’s parents if possible!)

I would love to hear from you! If you are a foster parent or a woman whose children were/are in foster care, what would you add to this list?