Preface: First let me point out that despite all of the challenges and trials created as a result of growing up in the world of fostering, I still went on to become an adult who rejoined the fight for children from rough places and became a foster parent myself. Whatever negative experiences I might have resented as a child did not outweigh the benefit that fostering brought into my life. I am more empathetic because I was shown from an early age what it was like to walk in the shoes of someone else. I learned to consider the actions of another person as the overflow of the past and not as an outpouring of a “bad” person. I believe God gives us our experiences to shape us in ways that make us better equipped to serve others with a particular need. But more can be done to help prepare biological children whose parents foster so that placements are successful, stress is managed, and terminations are reduced. With that in mind, below are a list of seven things biological children wish their parents knew in regards to fostering.
1. Explain to me how children enter foster care.
My parents started fostering when I was four, and I don’t remember ever being told what caused a child to enter into foster care. But by the time I was five I thought I had it all figured out. I had somehow arrived at the conclusion that any child could become a foster child (like some sort of awkward exchange program) if she or he misbehaved or if their parents misbehaved. The level of misbehavior was unclear. If my parents didn’t pay their bills, would I become a foster child? If I refused to eat my vegetables, would I become a foster child? I assumed that it was only a matter of time before it would be my turn to spend the night at a stranger’s house. When I was seven, this delusion was accidentally emphasized by my mother after she attended a training workshop that suggested a technique to encourage bio children to have empathy for foster children. One night while my baby sister Anna was taking a bath, my mom called my sister Rachel and I into the bathroom and told us to imagine we had to pack all the things we wanted to take with us into one grocery sack. That’s all you can take with you-- what would you bring? How would you feel? Think of all you’d leave behind. My sister Rachel started trying to choose between all her favorite stuffed animals. My baby sister, too young for words, splashed happily in the tub. But I was scared and instantly start thinking: “Who will pack bottles and enough diapers for my baby sister? How will I convince Rachel she needs to pack clothes too, not just toys? And can I fit my sisters into my bag?” I knew the reality of sibling separation from foster children we had in the past. My mom must have seen the look of concern on my face and quickly transitioned into the explanation of why she was asking us to play this empathy role playing game. As I grew older and encountered more examples of foster children, I developed a more accurate understanding of foster care and knew I wasn’t in danger, but I wish there would have been conversations earlier on so I didn’t have to experience unnecessary fear and uncertainty.
2. Allow me to have opportunities for closure and grieving.
Fostering comes with a variety of losses. Bio children may experience the loss of attention and time with parents, loss of our role in the family, a loss of innocence as we are exposed to the reality of trauma our foster siblings deal with. But the greatest loss for me and the one most difficult to cope with, was the loss of my foster siblings upon reunification or adoption by another family. Sometimes I got off the school bus at the end of the day only to find my baby foster sister was gone. These losses often felt like a death because I wasn’t able to say goodbye and I never saw them again. Yet unlike a death, which other family members and friends would acknowledge, the grief caused by the loss of a foster sibling becomes what Dr. Kenneth Doka has coined a “disenfranchised grief”. It is a grief unacknowledged by others and as a result the mourner is left to feel as if their grief is invalid and inappropriate. Additionally, few people have experienced the loss of a foster sibling, so we lack peers to share our experience with. And to further complicate our emotions, we don’t always know if our foster siblings are going to be safe in their new place so there may be fear and concern combined with our sadness.
Now that I am a foster parent myself, I realize that sufficient prior notice to allow for a proper goodbye is not always given by DHS. But if possible, allow your children to say goodbye or stay in touch after a foster sibling has moved on. Have conversations early on to help prepare your children for the inevitable ebb and flow that is fostering. Be sensitive to the very real bond that is created between your child and their foster siblings (which is healthy and crucial) and acknowledge the grieving that comes with its dissolution. Find ways to talk to your children before, during, and after so they know they are not alone. Validate their grief and make room for it as part of the price we pay when we truly love someone as they deserve to be loved.
3. Don’t assume my silence means I am okay.
During my training to become a foster parent, I sat in on a Q&A panel and someone in the audience asked the panel a question about how fostering had effected their own children. The foster parent on the panel responded that her children were fine with everything; they hadn’t said anything so they were okay and had no issues. I cringed when I heard this deluded parent. A lack of vocalization on the part of the child does not mean that everything is okay. There are many reasons why bio children may be quiet: 1) They may not know that they have a misconception that needs clarification, as I experienced when I thought I knew what it took to become a foster child. 2) They may not yet have the skills to process their emotions, particularly the rather complicated and unique emotions fostering creates. 3) They may feel guilty speaking up about a negative feeling because they are aware that compared to what the foster children have gone through, their concerns seem less valid. 4) They may be eager to be good because they know the expectations for their behavior are higher than those of the foster children and they are supposed to be a good role model. All of these factors for silence are dependent upon age and ability to understand. You don’t want to wait until there is a complete meltdown to suddenly start trying to have a conversation, or worse yet, find out after your children have grown and left your home that they were hurting for years but didn’t know how to talk to you about it. You can help your children by initiating an open, consistent line of communication, providing them with a support group designed just for children who foster if one is available in your area, and letting them be a part of the decision making process for the family so that they know their voice matters.
4. Protect me from the bad while still helping me trust in the good.
Foster children bring with them the abuse, neglect, and trauma that they experienced; this baggage is a carry on, not checked at the door. Many of us who foster do so because we want to rescue these little ones from harm and we want to have a positive influence on children, but while that will happen, influence works both ways. Your own children will be exposed to a new harsher worldview as a result of fostering and they will need your help in trying to make sense of it all. I remember my foster sibling who tried to punch her fist through the wall out of rage or the one who told me heinous stories of the abuse she had suffered at the hands of her stepmother as we laid awake at night in our bunk beds. All of these things increased my awareness of the brokenness in our world at an early age, but that does not mean that I was necessarily worse off. Sometimes I was provided a context for why these behaviors were occurring so that I understood how to separate the actions from the person and avoid judgment. I had to figure out new ways to tell good adults from bad adults because unlike my peers, I knew not all adults treat children kindly. But I also learned how to recognize someone who was hurting and knew strategies to help. And yes, I experienced more loss than anyone else my age, but I also developed coping strategies that have served me well as an adult. If you avoid fostering because of the fear of pain it might inflict on your child, you may be underestimating the powerful bond that is created when a family goes through tough stuff together. Now I am not saying you must disregard your family’s strengths and weaknesses. If you know you can’t handle an aggressive male teenager and fear it would threaten the safety of your little seven year old girl, then it is okay to say no to that placement. Have an open and honest discussion with the family about what kinds of behaviors they feel ready to cope with and continue to get training for those surprising new challenges that come along the way.
5. Let me help you foster.
In the United Kingdom, bio children of foster parents are referred to as “children who foster” and there are support groups designed just for them. In the United States, we have treated these children as invisible. There is little to no training for foster parents regarding how to talk with their own children. Caseworkers often ignore bio children entirely because their focus is on the children in custody, and there are no peer support groups to help bio children share their experiences with others and have a safe place to talk. But if the goal is to create the healthiest possible environment for the foster child, then biological children can often help you accomplish this goal. We can provide some kind of substitute sibling relationships for foster children separated from their own siblings. We can serve as role models for the kinds of behaviors that foster children are being asked to learn. We can be (and often are) the ones the foster children open up to first, letting down their guard with their peers and speaking the stories of pain that they have kept hidden from adults. If you allow your children to be a part of the process, part of the training, part of the discussions and decisions, you empower them and give them the tools they need to navigate these new experiences more successfully and help their foster siblings along the way.
6. Respect my role in the family while helping me adapt to the new transitions.
According to Judith Heidburrt, foster families are unlike other families in that they are open systems rather than closed systems which makes it difficult to define boundaries and can cause a loss of identity. For example, imagine a country whose borders were constantly changing every day. One day to live in Florida is to be an American, one day it is not. Everyone would be affected by this instability. For bio children living in a home where one day they might be the oldest in the family, and the next day they become the middle child, the loss of identity in the family can be uneasy and eventually cause resentment. Age, gender,and birth order are all factors in a successful placement. When deciding what ages to accept, keep the birth order for the oldest child in the family. As the oldest child in my family, I know that when my parents took in a foster child who was older than I was, I felt like I had just been laid off. I lost my job in the family and this change made it more difficult to adapt to and accept the new family member.
Many people who consider fostering resist out of fear of what this will do to their own children. But think of the times when a new biological child was born into your family and the transition period that took place. Yet as parents you found a way to make it work and help the other children learn how to adapt because you knew getting rid of the latest sibling wasn’t an option. The same consideration should exist when a new foster child is brought into your home. Your bio children may display new behaviors as they test the boundaries and try to find a new way of operating within the changing system of the family. This is not a reason to quit fostering, but rather an opportunity to communicate with your child.Transitions of any kind are difficult, but just like other transitions we ask children to go through (ex. divorce causing change in custody arrangements), children can learn and adapt with help. To quit fostering simply because a child is showing difficulty adapting to changes is to miss out on a chance to help build important life skills such as resiliency and adaptability in your child.
7. Be our role model.
Fostering is filled with the unpredictable; no amount of training will ever completely prepare you in advance for every possible contingency. But we don’t need you to know all the answers ahead of time so long as we know you will always be the stable center, the strong foundation, the safe place to land. We will pick up our cues on how to treat each new arrival and how we should allow them to treat us by watching you. Don’t give up on them, and don’t give up on us. Together we can make a difference in the life of a child who needs us.