When you become a foster family, it is fantastic to have a community that supports you. I’ve written posts before on the physical ways you can support a foster family, but there’s another aspect of all this I want to address. When you have a foster family in your church, extended family, neighborhood, etc. there is a little bit of education that may be helpful. You may not have time to make a meal or the money to run out and buy diapers as a welcome gift for this new child, but if you’ve got a few minutes I’m going to help you do something that may be even more appreciated–learn about how to respond to this new child and their foster family in helpful, respectful and supportive ways. So here are 7 things you need to know so you can be on the same team as your favorite fostering family:
Value this child’s privacy. The stories of foster children do not belong to the general public. It hurts me when foster parents are casual about the stories of their children instead of guarding them the way they should (especially when it comes to social media! shudder). Whether the foster parent in your community is appropriately vague or tends to overshare, you can help the situation by not pushing for details you don’t need to know. I realize there are times where you MAY need to know things because your children play together or you’re providing some kind of care for this child, but make an effort to keep your questions open ended and don’t make hurtful assumptions. You can ask, “Are there any behavioral issues we should be watching for? Any medical concerns we need to know about while he’s with us? Anything that might be triggering for her?” without saying, “I can’t believe there are monsters out there that would treat their own child like garbage!” There is a moment for righteous anger, but there are often systemic issues that create these problems. These kids are almost always the victims of people who were victimized themselves. If we can withhold judgement especially because we don’t have all the information, that is helpful. When we value this child’s privacy, we become part of the team that is protecting them and their story.
Photo by Rebecca Tredway Photography
Ask the foster parents what the child is calling them. Sometimes you find yourself in the awkward moment of saying, “Do you want a snack? Why don’t you go ask. . . your. . . ummmm. . . HER if that’s okay.” Some kids want to call their foster parents “Mom” and “Dad” (at least in group settings) so they aren’t outed as foster children in public. Some call them by their first names. I was Miss Maralee during our group home years. If you aren’t sure, just ask and don’t assume that it’s always handled the same way in each situation.
Be mindful of boundary issues. When dropping a child off in the church nursery, I have always made it clear that I am to the be only one that changes that child’s diaper. I want this child to know that people who are strangers are not allowed near their private areas (even if I know and fully trust those people). I also want to eliminate the possibility someone not involved in the case could get accused of inappropriate behavior by the biological family. This is an example of the boundaries we create around our foster child for their safety and to protect others. There are lots of ways this may play out for foster families. The foster parents may want to be the only ones that offer food to the child (this is part of creating a healthy attachment and can protect against issues that could come up if you offer them food they shouldn’t have for reasons you may not be aware of). The foster parents may not want anyone else to offer physical affection to the child because of abuse issues in their past and their need to learn appropriate boundaries with strangers. The foster mom may not pass around the infant the way a biological mother would because she’s working to create trust with the child through the consistency of her presence. These things are done intentionally and need to be supported, understood, and respected.
Be aware that “charming” is a coping skill. There are kids in foster care that have learned how to be charming to strangers. This is a way for them to get approval and feel loved. These charming behaviors may not extend outside of that public environment and the foster family may be dealing with a very different child behind the scenes. It can be easy as an outsider to imagine that you have a special bond with this child and that any problems the foster family are having are because they don’t love or understand the child the way you do. It is natural to second guess them and how they’re handling things if this child is wonderful to you, but you’re hearing about a different version of them from the family. It can be really invalidating to hear from other people, “She did WHAT? Oh, she’s always so sweet to me! That’s really hard to believe.” Knowing that being superficially charming to strangers while fighting with the people you know care most about you is actually normal and to be expected can help you support the foster parents as they work through those challenging situations.
Be aware of parenting differences. Foster parents don’t have the freedom to parent the way everyone else does. Their kids have unique needs, triggers, histories, medical issues, etc. that must be accounted for. Our top priority is building a trusting relationship with the child. That likely means establishing safe and firm boundaries while giving lots of affection, nurture and grace. Recognize that your parenting experience may not prepare you to offer advice that’s applicable in this unique situation. That doesn’t mean you can’t talk about parenting together, it just may mean you have to ask more questions and be willing to learn about the issues your friend is facing.
Supporting the foster parent IS helping the child. If you have a real soft spot for this child and want to do something to help, recognize that helping the foster parent is a great way to help the child. Maybe the foster mom can’t pass you the baby to hold, but can you go grab her a glass of water when she needs it so she doesn’t have to put him down? If the foster toddler is asking for a snack, can you be the one to ask the foster parents if animal crackers would be okay and then go grab some the foster parents can hand to the child? If the foster parents need a date night, but also don’t want to leave the child with unfamiliar caregivers, can you go over after the child is asleep and stay at the house so they can go out? Instead of thinking about ways you can try and help the child, your first goal may be to help the foster parents so they can be the best help possible to the child. (And hopefully there will come a time when the child has a firm attachment to the foster family where it is totally appropriate to invest in relationship with them. This just takes time.)
If you’re concerned about something, ask. If you see behaviors that don’t seem right to you, don’t just excuse them as “foster kid problems.” Find a gentle way to ask the foster family if there’s a way you should be responding to these issues so you’re all on the same team. We’ve got to find that middle ground between assuming these are throwaway problem children and it’s not worth trying to help them and being hypersensitive about any childhood issue and panicking. Ask about these things in love and with a desire to support these kids and the families that love them. Continue to be educated about the issues of foster care and foster children and let your fostering friends be your teacher.
Foster parents need an educated community of loving support around them. You can actually make the difference between the foster family burning out and giving up or feeling like they can keep at this even when it’s tough. I am so thankful for the families and friends that have come around us and held up our arms when things were tough. They are the reason we’re able to do what we do. To them and to all of you doing your best to help, thank you!
Maralee is a mother of six pretty incredible kids ages seven and under. “Four of my kids were adopted (one internationally from Liberia, three through foster care) and two of our sons we made ourselves. Prior to becoming parents my husband and I were houseparents at a children’s home and had the privilege of helping to raise 17 boys during our five year tenure. I’m crazy passionate about caring for kids, foster parenting and adoption, making my husband a fairly decent dinner every night, staying on top of the laundry, watching ridiculous documentaries, and doing everything I do for God’s glory.” Read more from Maralee at www.amusingmaralee.com.