1. When it comes to your kid’s background and story, you will be the last to know about almost everything. It’s frustrating, to be sure, because as the foster parent, you want to know what you’re in for, right? But confidentiality takes precedent. I know someone who didn’t even know the name of the child’s birth parents until months after the placement began. You definitely won’t know who the prior placements were or why they left unless you do some of your own digging.
2. You will often feel very alone and like there’s no one who understands, even other parents. Foster parenting is so different than normal parenting, and there’s so little that you can share with others. On top of it all, parenting a traumatized child (every foster child is traumatized, in some sense, because leaving one’s home is terrible, no matter how bad of a situation they were in) is extremely different than normal parenting. You can’t operate using normal parenting tactics, because you could be triggering a past memory. The pressure is also a lot greater, as there are many cooks in the kitchen. When you make a big decision for that child, 5 other people have to also give their input and approval.
You also won’t be able to compare notes with other parents, even if their kids are similar in age. Kids who have undergone trauma develop at a different rate. While they may not have the ability to focus and sit still like other kids their age, they also have hyper aware capabilities that could rival those of an FBI agent. They won’t follow the normal patterns for growth and development.
3. Expect hours of phone calls and logistics every single week. On top of all the normal phone calls that one has to make for kids (school, doctor, dentist, after school activities) you also need to coordinate with a therapist, CASA worker, social worker, CSA visitation workers, birth parents and any TBS workers (special behavioral mentors). In our case, we times that by two since we have brothers. Last Friday, I counted the amount of business related text messages I made in a SINGLE afternoon– TWENTY-FIVE. If your child has any medical needs (most do, in some form), expect 6-8 hours worth of phone communication per child, per week. I’m not joking.
4. Expect little to no control. This is a large one. It’s very easy to experience foster-parent-burnout trying to control all the factors. The truth is, foster care is a huge lesson in letting go. You will hardly be able to predict the child you have, much less control anything about them. You won’t know when or if they’re being returned to their family, and you’ll drive yourself crazy trying to put a timeline on it. Come up with a few plans and contingencies, and then forget about it and focus on the day to day task of loving them. If you’re anxious about controlling things, the child will be too.
That being said, it’s easy to lose sight of what “normal” used to mean for you and your family once your foster care placement begins. Before it all begins, come up with 3 things you won’t budge on (special time once a week with your bio kids, quality of life, how far or how often you’re willing to drive to visits, etc.) and then consider everything else part of the “gray” area that you’re willing to let slide, if need be.
5. Don’t expect appreciation or affirmation from the kids. This may seem obvious, but after a while, when you’ve been “in the trenches” for a while, it’s easy to feel resentful towards your placements. Don’t they know how much you’ve done for them? But biological kids don’t know that they’re supposed to thank their mom for giving birth to them. Why should foster kids be any different? Kids are supposed to be hardwired to trust their caregivers and focus on other things. If they’re not thanking you, they’re probably comfortable and it’s a good sign.
6. Get ready to ask for help. Have a huge support system lined up ahead of time, because you’re going to need it. Foster parenting is a lot more exhausting than normal parenting, and there is no shame in asking for as much help as you can get your hands on. It doesn’t mean you’ve failed.
7. Plan in breaks. Have the names of family, friends, or official respite care ready to go ahead of time. Don’t feel guilty for needing a break to recharge your batteries. Attaching to kids placed in your home is incredibly draining, like trying to grow a limb overnight. It’s also exhausting for the kids! They probably need a break from you too.
8. Kids will try to exert control over something as a way to process the changes in their life. They just will. The trick is, are you going to control what it is that they get to control? Find things to give them choices about, and make sure you like the outcomes. For instance, if you’re serving vegetables for dinner, give them a choice between two of them so that they’re less likely to fight you. Food will almost always be the thing they try to control, because it’s such a basic part of everyday survival. Don’t go head to head with them, or it will turn into a long and ugly power struggle. Just give choices that you can live with. Having some measure of control will make the child feel safe. If you don’t give them something to exert control over, they will find it in some way or another. I know someone whose foster kid would resort to wetting the bed, just to have something they could control.
9. Never assume a child’s behavior is due to any one thing in particular. Ask don’t assume. You could not make up the stories that some of these kids have for their bizarre habits or actions.
In our training, we heard about a kid who refused to eat dinner at the same time as her foster family. The parents were angry, and kept trying to force her to eat with the family as a house rule, thinking she was being obstinate. Turns out, she came from a home where there was never enough to eat. She always ate last because she wanted to make sure her younger siblings had eaten enough first. It was a habit that she couldn’t break, and she was ashamed to talk about it.
I know of another kid who refused to pick up his toys and would always say, “throw them away!” Turns out, he wasn’t being obstinate– his previous foster parent used to punish him for everything by throwing away his toys. He was saving his feelings and pre-empting the strike.
10. Have a therapist or confidant on speed dial– for YOU. We’ve been to over 60 hours of foster care training, and without fail, there’s always been that one parent who cannot shut up about their case. They are so torn up inside, that the moment they get into a room where they can talk, they NEVER STOP. They hijack the session and do more talking than the instructor!
And I completely understand– there’s SO much to talk about and process! Foster parenting is an incredible journey, but it’s a marathon. You need someone to talk to. If you’re married, prepare for foster parenting to be the hardest thing you’ve ever experienced together. Before you know it, the miscommunications pile up and can begin ripping a marriage apart. I’ve heard this from 99.9% of the foster parents I’ve talked to. Are you the 1% that’s above it all? If you’re thinking that way, you probably aren’t. Get a therapist ready to go. The success of the child in your care depends on it.
Did I miss any? Feel free to leave other helpful pieces of advice in the comments!
My name is Kelly Cone, and I write over at Our Cone Zone. I am 28 years old, and have two biological children, ages 3 and 2. My husband and I have also fostered 3 children over the past 4 years. I studied at Biola University where I received my BA in English, and then went on to receive an MA in English from the University of Dallas. I have been blogging for a little over a year– everything from gluten-free recipes to heartfelt chats about motherhood.