One of the challenges of being a foster parent can be having conversations about difficult or sensitive topics. On one hand, as a foster parent you are aware that the child in your care has been through painful experiences and you want him or her to feel comfortable talking with you about their worries and concerns. On the other hand, you may fear that your bringing up sensitive topics will be traumatic for your child and, perhaps, stir up memories or feelings which you may not be able to handle.
As with other foster parenting issues there is no simple formula for knowing just when or how to have those difficult conversations. There are, however, some simple guidelines which may help you navigate this challenging part of your role as a foster parent. Keep in mind that there will be many opportunities to talk. No single conversation will make or break your communication with your foster child.
Take advantage of opportunities for conversation which occur naturally. Many children, including those in foster care, find it much easier to talk with an adult when they are riding in a car with them. There is something about the contained space of a car that can create a very safe space for talking. Riding in a car limits most direct eye contact. (You do have to keep your eyes on the road!) The lack of direct eye contact can make it easier for a child to bring up and discuss sensitive issues. This is true for teenagers as well as for younger children.
Being a careful listener will help you respond to a child who is opening up to you. As your child starts to talk about a sensitive issue try not to jump right in and “make everything better” as tempting as that might be. It may be more helpful for you to listen for a bit and then respond with empathy (“I’m so sorry you had to go through that”) or an open ended question (“what was that like for you? ”). Also, try to allow for some periods of silence as your child processes information. Foster children need to know that their life stories can be heard and respected by caring adults who will not turn away from them when they disclose the painful things that have happened to them in the past and their worries about the future.
Your being able to welcome a child or youth’s opening up to you in a calm and interested manner will show the child that it is safe to let others help with problems. Take time later to process your reactions to what you hear with another trusted adult such as your spouse or Plummer social worker. In the moment, try to stay focused on the child and let him know that you are glad to be able to talk about what is important to him or her. And take note yourself that even the most innocuous activities like driving to the store to pick up a gallon of milk can provide an opportunity for intimacy and trust building.