Tips on Parenting Foster Children

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Whether you are considering fostering or have completed the foster care licensing process, you are probably wondering what it’s like to be a foster parent.

Kris Hanson is a former foster parent who is now a foster care coordinator with Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota. When Kris first started providing foster care, she had no idea what to expect. She soon discovered that each child’s unique experience may be very different from her own. Fostering full-time taught Kris and her family how to support each child’s transition into their family, routines, and relationships.

Kris offers the following advice for prospective and current foster parents:

  • Understand how trauma impacts a child’s life
  • Respond to challenges in positive ways
  • Offer safety and stability through daily routines
  • Give a child space to share their experiences in their own time
  • Help the child maintain connections to their own family

Key among her takeaways? Parenting a foster child takes dedication. People who love children and are willing to learn how to best meet the needs of each child can make a huge difference in that child’s life.

Understand How Trauma Has Impacted a Foster Child’s Life

Being removed from their family’s home is inherently traumatic for children. It is essential for foster parents to recognize that how a child adapts and relates to people and situations is influenced by their personal experiences. It is important to learn about how trauma affects a child’s development, behavior and personal interactions.

The most common reasons children enter foster care are often linked to parental or family struggles that are traumatic for the child:

  • Parents’ struggles with substance use
  • Allegations of neglect
  • Allegations of abuse

“A child’s reaction to something in the moment may be triggered by past events,” Kris said. “Learning and educating yourself on how to respond positively is key.”

Some children may respond to a foster family cautiously while others may exhibit enthusiasm. It is important to remember that children in foster care are likely experiencing many emotions such as sadness, anger, fear and confusion all at once. Over time, building a positive relationship with the child in your care, you will learn what support works best for each child.

Positive Responses Help Build Safe Relationships with Children Who Have Experienced Trauma

Modeling positive behavior is a key factor in developing a safe and supportive relationship with the child in your care. Remember that how children react in any situation will reflect whether they are struggling. Children may not have the skills to communicate their needs directly. It is important to remember to always ask, “What is the child trying to express by their words and actions? What would be helpful to them in this moment?” In this way, you can build a safe and supportive relationship one step at a time. Experiencing both the security of a safe caregiver and having their needs met when they are not with their parents or guardian can help children through whatever they are struggling with.

Positive ideas that support children in care:

  • Remain calm and non-judgmental.
  • Be ready and open to listening to what the child wants to share.
  • Give space: taking time and space for yourself and the child can de-escalate tension.
  • Check in with the child if they have withdrawn.
  • Plan together with the child on how to handle a similar situation should it arise again in the future.
  • Support communication that is most comfortable for the child — this will make it easier for the child to process what they are feeling and can assure that you can move together towards resolution.

Kris and her husband fostered two young boys who struggled with strong emotions due to trauma. She and her husband both understood how important it was to establish a secure and safe relationship with them. Time was spent one-on-one with each boy as Kris and her husband demonstrated how much they genuinely cared for them. Over time, the boys were able to develop close, caring relationships with both caregivers.

When working with children to build safe, supportive relationships, Kris advises, “Don’t take it personally. It will take time and patience to work through children’s’ struggles.”

Daily Routines Can Offer Security and Stability for Children in Foster Care

Children thrive on routine – it helps them know what to expect and can help build a sense of security. For many children in foster care, foster homes provide structure and stability.

Consider what routines you can establish that help a child feel a sense of security and help them know what to expect. Some ideas include:

  • Keep regular mealtime.
  • Set consistent bedtime and waking times.
  • Set aside a specific place in the home for the child to do homework.
  • Schedule family togetherness time.
  • Schedule consistent one-on-one time.

Kris explained that some children experience food insecurity. This was true for one young boy Kris cared for. Foster parents can help by being sensitive to the child’s needs, reassuring them healthy food will be available and providing regular mealtime. Kris made sure the young boy knew how he could always serve himself healthy snacks. She helped him learn their family’s routine around regular mealtime.

“We explained that we will always provide him with food,” Kris said. “When it came time to eat, I would include him in setting the table by making it a game. We included some positive reinforcement for helping. As he felt more secure, he learned to enjoy the time with the family at dinner.”

It Is Important to Give a Child Space to Share Their Experiences in Their Own Time

Children and youth have a lot they could tell you about their lives and themselves. Opening up to new people, especially new adults, isn’t always easy. It is important to create a safe space by meeting them where they are, without judgement or pressure to share more than they’re comfortable with. When you follow their lead with personal conversations, children and youth will open up in their own time.

One 17-year-old girl lived with multiple families before coming to live with Kris. Kris and her family knew the girl would need some time to develop trust and feel secure before she would be willing to share her past experiences.

“After a few weeks when she wanted to talk, she thanked me for giving her space,” Kris said. “She said so many people were always trying to dig and ask questions about her past when she wasn’t ready to talk about it.”

Maintaining Meaningful Connections in the Life of a Foster Child

Fostering is a co-parenting relationship. Many families are relieved to know their child is being well-cared for. Relationships between foster and biological families is about keeping the children at the center. It is also about setting the path for a smooth transition for the child and the family at the time of reunification.

Maintaining relationships with the child’s family can:

  • Keep children connected to the people in their own lives that matter.
  • Help children heal from trauma and develop a healthier sense of self.
  • Help preserve the child’s cultural identity and community connections.
  • Help ease the transition between families and caregivers.

Kris once cared for a youth who had a milestone 16th birthday while in care. Together, Kris and the girl’s mother planned the birthday celebration. The youth and her mother were excited to be able to celebrate together with Kris and her family.

It is common to wonder what your relationship will be after care when the child leaves your home. Fostering creates significant relationships for the child, for you and for the families involved. Those relationships may be important to maintain even after care. LSS encourages you to explore ways to maintain significant relationships with children and their families that began when the child was in your care.

Support for Foster Families

Fostering is both rewarding and can be challenging. It is important to have a network of support. LSS supports foster families with training, coaching, resources and 24/7 crisis support so families have the tools, assistance and encouragement they need.

LSS Therapeutic foster parents share their experiences:

To learn more about being a foster parent, visit our Therapeutic Foster Care webpage.