Why Foster Children Need Families that will be theirs Forever

Children and teenagers who grow up in foster care often feel that nothing in their life is permanent. This is especially true for kids who’ve had multiple moves while in foster care. When she’s had to move from one place to another, she may have lost everything familiar to her. She may have had to deal not only with a new home, but also with a new school, new friends and a new community. Starting over again is not easy and it can make a child reluctant to put down deep roots anywhere.

For many kids in foster care their feeling that everything is temporary can’t change until they have the unconditional commitment that comes from an adult willing to make a legal commitment to them.  If a child will not be returning to their family of origin, such a legal relationship will come through adoption or guardianship. This kind of legal commitment can provide them something that most of us take for granted…the security of knowing that they won’t have to change homes and families again. This is no less important for older youth than it is for their younger brothers and sisters.

When a sixteen or seventeen year old gets an unconditional commitment to be part of a forever family, it doesn’t make up for the years she lived without the security such a family provides. But it does give her a permanent family for the rest of her life. And that security, even if she gets it as an older teen, will help her feel a sense of belonging that has been absent from her life. That sense of belonging may help her feel enough to have deeper relationships with others. It’s never too late for kids to be given a chance to become more rooted in their families and communities.

Getting Closer: Developing a Nurturing Relationship with Your Older Foster Child

“Don’t hug me!” says your 14 year old foster daughter.  “I don’t feel like talking”, huffs your 16 year old foster son.  What is a foster parent to do?

Chances are, when you became a foster parent, you were looking forward to being able to comfort and nurture any foster child placed with you.  But if you’re caring for a teen, things may suddenly seem not that simple.

Many teens in foster care haven’t experienced a consistently nurturing relationship with a caring adult.  As a foster parent, your job is to try to do that, despite the challenges.  In doing this, you will change your foster child’s life forever. The physical care, cuddling and holding through which babies and young children are nurtured aren’t appropriate for older children. So you have to find other ways to nurture your foster child.

One tool you can use is food.  Food is a reliable source of comfort and nurture. Providing regular mealtimes that include opportunities to eat together as a family can help a foster child feel nurtured. Making an effort to serve the child’s favorite foods can help him feel accepted by your family.

If you can get your foster teen involved with the food preparation, even better! This gives you a great opportunity to work closely with your foster child while also teaching him important life skills. Maybe eventually you can take it a step further and pair up with him to plan, shop for, cook and serve a meal together.

Teaching your older child how to do something useful is also a powerful tool.  Everyone likes to feel competent – even needed – so lessons like these can be a real gift.  Add to it that the teaching itself provides natural opportunities for warm interactions, and it’s clear that this is a tool worth trying.

With an older child it’s important to take advantage of opportunities for nurturing which occur as part of the routines of daily life.  And most teens want to look good.  So consider clothes shopping together or going with your foster child for a haircut This can give you special time alone with your foster child and help her feel cared for by you. Opportunities for nurturing occur also when a child is ill. An older child with a bad cold may literally “eat up” your homemade chicken soup and the caring that goes with it.

Nurturing an older foster child can be challenging, so you have to be creative. But the truth is, a lot of opportunities come up in daily life.  Stay open to the possibilities, and they will arise.

Successful Foster Parenting: A Thousand Little Steps

step-by-stepYou’ve decided to become a foster parent, are licensed and trained, and have welcomed your first child into your home. A few months pass and friends and family start asking “how’s it going?” You respond with a brief “fine” or “every day is an adventure.” But later, when you ask yourself the same question, you struggle to find the right answer.

Foster parenting has been different than you expected it to be. When your foster child came to live with you, you were told to keep your expectations in check. And you’ve tried to do that. But sometimes it seems hard to identify whether your child (or you) have made any progress at all.  This may be the time to take stock of all you’ve accomplished. If your foster child has been safe, warm, fed and rested in your home, that’s progress. If he is attending school regularly, that’s progress. If melt downs are happening with less intensity and frequency, that’s progress. If he or she is beginning to make more eye contact with you and other family members, that’s progress too.

Measure your own growth as a foster parent in equally small steps.  If you’re getting better at predicting what “sets off” your child, that’s progress. If you’ve found ways to help redirect some of his anger in ways that work better for him and those around him, that’s progress. Without even noticing, you may have modified some of your daily routines so that your foster child feels more a part of your family life.  That’s progress.

Settling into in a new home and family is a huge task for any child. And, integrating a new person into your home and family is also a huge task. Give yourself credit for the things that are going well. Remember that every little step you and your foster child take together brings him closer to the safety and stability he deserves and you want for him.

So, when you ask yourself “how’s it going?”, keep in mind that success as a foster parent is best measured in small increments that may seem insignificant now, but that in the long run, will matter profoundly for you and your foster child.

The Foster Parent’s Mantra: It’s Not Personal

man-517200_1280A mantra is a word or phrase that is repeated often and expresses someone’s basic beliefs. It can help you keep your wits about you when life is especially challenging.

For many foster parents, “it’s not personal” is an important mantra.

People become foster parents because they want to help kids. So it can be really hard when a foster child resists your offers of support and caring, or maybe challenges your authority and breaks all your rules.  In fact, their response may be so strong and so consistent that you think you must be doing something terribly wrong.  Well, chances are, you’re not.

There can be many explanations for why your foster child is struggling in your home. More likely than not, it has to do with his previous life experiences. Maybe in past situations he was mistreated or rejected. Maybe she’s been moved multiple times, always experiencing abrupt ends to relationships that she was trying to build.  Maybe he assumes all the same things are going to happen again sooner or later.

It can take a long time before you understand what is behind the puzzling behavior.  In the meantime, the “it’s not personal” mantra might help.  Internalizing this belief can protect you from feelings of failure and help you persist in your efforts to bond with your child regardless of how difficult his current behavior may be.

Most foster kids eventually respond to the care and love provided by their foster parents. But getting there can be long and difficult. As you go through the day to day steps of building a trusting relationship, try to remember that your foster youth’s struggles generally are not about you. And repeat three times, “it’s not personal, it’s not personal and it’s not personal.”

Helping A Kid Be A Kid: Guiding Your “Parentified” Foster Child

teenage boy 2Some teens in foster care had to take on adult responsibilities at a very young age. This typically occurs when a teen had to take care of younger siblings because the adults in the home weren’t functioning as parents. Your foster teen may have been routinely responsible for seeing that younger children were fed, bathed, put to bed and cared for when sick. In these circumstances, the caretaking youth has been expected to take on the role of parent to such a degree that his or her own developmental needs as a child have been neglected.

Youth who grow up having to do the work of a parent are described as being “parentified.” A foster parent who welcomes such a child into their home understandably has the urge to relieve the parentified child of her responsibilities and let her experience being a “normal kid”. However, when such a youth is placed in a foster home being expected to “just be a kid” may be very difficult. If the youth is placed with her younger siblings she may resent losing her position in the family and compete with the foster parents for the role of caretaker. If she has been placed apart from siblings, she may be overwhelmed by guilt and feel she has abandoned her siblings.

As in most foster parenting challenges, awareness of the youth’s perspective is vital in to being helpful. Acknowledging the loss of the parental role is important. It may be helpful to ask your foster youth the specifics of what she did for her siblings and what that was like for her. Your social worker can provide guidance about ways to do this. If you are caring for the foster youth as well as her younger siblings, expect times when there will be confusion about who is in charge in the home.

If your foster youth’s siblings are not living with you she may enjoy having fewer responsibilities but worry about her brothers and sisters and feel guilty that she is no longer caring for them. Do whatever you can to see that she maintains regular contact with her siblings.

Remember that the parentified child has had to learn how to be competent at many things at an early age. Acknowledge her competence and let her use her skills in ways that demonstrate her abilities and talents. At the same time, provide her opportunities to be a “regular kid” and praise her for things that she does that are more age-appropriate. It may take a lot of effort for her to try out the role of a regular teenager by getting involved in a school activity or developing friendships which provide opportunities to hang out with peers. With your support and guidance she will get there and you will get to see her have the experiences that will help her move successfully from adolescence to young adulthood.

When Foster Parents Get Children on Short Notice

Foster parents don’t always have time to get to know a child who is coming to live with them. In fact, it is sometimes only a few hours between when a child is removed from their home to when they arrive at the home of a foster family. So how can you help your foster child settle in?

Start by explaining your routines so the child gets a sense of how your family operates. Remember that every family has different ways of organizing their lives. Some families have mealtime routines which involve even young children in food preparation, setting the table and cleanup. In other families children are called to the table when it is time to eat and are not expected to do much more than clear their plate after eating. Both routines are perfectly normal and work well for most families. For a foster child in a new home your “normal” routine may be totally different from anything he or she has known in his previous home.

children-403582_1280Explain bit by bit how things work in your home and give him a reminder before he is expected to participate in a family routine. For example, saying that there will be fifteen more minutes before the television is turned off lets him know what to expect and protects him from feeling caught off guard. He still may not want the television turned off but he will have been given a chance to prepare for it.

Moving into a new environment where everything is unfamiliar can be overwhelming for anyone. Patiently helping your foster child “learn the ropes” of your home can make a big difference.

It’s also helpful to ask him how he is used to doing things. Especially with older children and teens it may be important to be flexible whenever possible about smaller things. Getting homework done is a non-negotiable; where it gets done may be something you can flex on.

At Plummer we appreciate how hard our foster families work to welcome new children into their homes. Explaining your family’s routines and demonstrating how things work in your home will help your new foster child feel comfortable and accepted. And that’s good for everyone.

Fostering Older Youth: Let the Healing Begin

“Kids need families to grow up – that’s just what they need.” 

girl-676185_1280That’s what a Plummer foster youth said and we believe it’s true, no matter the age or circumstance of the young person in care. Sadly, thousands of youth exit the foster care system every year without a family to call their own. They often face homelessness, unemployment and worse. People who foster teens and older youth can help make sure this doesn’t happen.

Many older youth in foster care have been moved over and over again. They’ve grown up thinking that their next move may be just around the corner. That just one mistake can lead to them being moved from their current foster home into another, or into a group home. In all likelihood they’ve changed schools repeatedly and fallen behind.  We know that bouncing from place to place like this, never knowing who they will be living with next, makes it difficult for foster youth to trust anyone.

Adults who foster these young people are in a position to make a profound difference. When a youth in foster care begins to understand that someone is committed to stopping them from bouncing around the foster care system and is determined to help them find a permanent family, it frees her to begin to heal.

Plummer’s goal is for a Plummer foster home to be a young person’s last foster home. This doesn’t mean the foster parent(s) will adopt. What it means is that the foster parent(s) understand how harmful it is for a child to keep bouncing around from place to place and are willing to do the best they can to make their home the last stop before that child finds a permanent family. Sometimes the foster family may indeed become the permanent family, most times they will not.

We know we are raising the bar for foster care. We’re doing it because we deeply believe it’s what is best for kids. We provide our foster families extra support to hang in through the tough times. Foster youth do best when a permanent family is the goal for them. The path to that permanent family is through a committed foster family.

Imagine changing a child’s life course from one headed toward homelessness to one headed toward a forever family. Won’t you join us in changing lives?

Making Birth Family Visits Successful for Your Foster Child

dad-909510_1280Birth family visits are important for children in foster care. They allow family connections to stay strong. They can reassure both children and adults that the people they care about are still part of their lives even if they aren’t living together. Children and youth in foster care who have regular contact with their birth families have fewer fantasies about the families they have been separated from and may be better able to understand that they can care for both birth and foster families.

At the same time, birth family visits can be a source of stress. Birth parents may feel that a scheduled visit is a test of their ability to care for their child. Foster children may worry about their birth families and feel guilty about the things available to them in their foster home. Foster parents may worry about how their foster child will handle the pressure of a birth family visit and if the experience will make it harder for their child to thrive in their foster family.

As a foster parent, there are things you can do to help make these visits easier. Begin with the understanding that although your foster son or daughter may not be able to talk about it, he or she may struggle with feelings of being caught between two families. These feelings may get worse before or after birth family contact. You can gently acknowledge these feeling by telling your foster child that you know it can be hard for him or her to go back and forth between families.

Also, be openly supportive of the birth family contact. Let your foster child know you are glad he or she is going to spend time with birth family. Help your foster child prepare for the visit and send him or her off with your encouragement. Let them know what will be happening in your home after their return.

Some kids need a quiet transition time after returning from a birth family visit. They may need to “chill” in their room and rejoin the family after some time has passed. Others may want to fill you in on the details of their visit right away. Ask older kids directly what is helpful for them.

In any case, give them some time to unwind and understand that feelings and thoughts about their birth families are never far away. Your ongoing respect of their birth family connections is one of the many things you can do to make birth family contact a positive experience for everyone involved.

Families for Life – Why all kids need them and how foster parents can help

planTeenagers don’t need families. They don’t even want families.

Really?

Sometimes that’s what people think. And if a teen actually expresses this sentiment, it is tempting to accept their statements at face value. This can lead to tragic consequences for young people in the foster care / group care system.

When young people leave the child welfare system with no family to count on, nobody they know is committed to them forever, the outcomes are grim. High rates of homelessness, unemployment, early parenting – you name it.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. When you don’t have a family, who teaches you even the most basic life skills? Who explains how to find an apartment, and be a responsible tenant? Who teaches you how to manage money? Or about the importance of brushing your teeth?

Youth in foster care and group care live in an unpredictable world in which they have no say over what happens to them. Strangers make decisions that profoundly impact a young person’s life – judges, social workers, teachers, lawyers, foster parents – people trying to do the right thing but who, at the end of the day, have no long-term commitment to, or responsibility for, the child.

At Plummer Home, we believe that all young people — including teenagers — need permanent families and we place a high priority on making this happen. For that reason, our group care and foster care programs place a high priority on connecting kids with permanent families. To be sure, we spend a lot of time teaching them skills and helping them connect with community — two other things necessary for success – but we never give up on finding family. This is as true for our 13 years olds as it is for our 21 year olds.

If you become a foster parent with Plummer, our goal is that you will be the last foster placement for that child. That doesn’t mean you will provide the child’s permanent home, but is does mean that you believe, as we do, that repeated moves are harmful. And that you will help us achieve the goal of finding a permanent place for your foster child. Our goal is a permanent family, one that doesn’t disappear when a kid turns a certain age. Parents are forever.

To learn more about fostering, call us at 978-935-9555 or visit us at plummerhome.org/fostercare. Your love can make all the difference. Thank you!

Celebrating Holidays with your Foster Children

Christmas cookiesChristmas and Hanukkah can be a joyous time for most, but for many youth in foster care the holiday season can also bring added stress and anxiety.

Dr. John DeGarmo, a foster parent as well as a professional in the field, talks about his experiences fostering youth over the holidays in Foster Focus Magazine. He writes,

 “When they wake up Christmas morning, and are surrounded by people who just may be strangers to them, strangers who are laughing and having fun, it can be a very difficult time for them, indeed. To be sure, it is a day that is a stark reminder to these children that they are not with their own family. It is during the holidays when families are supposed to be together, yet these children in care are not. They are not with their families, and they may not know when they will see them next.”

Dr. DeGarmo gives tips to foster parents on how to help youth through these difficulties. He reminds families that it is expected that some youth will regress during the holidays and revert back to old behaviors or attitudes. Dr. DeGarmo believes that allowing youth their own space to grieve is of utmost importance.

He also recommends that families prepare the foster youth for the holiday by talking about their family’s traditions and asking youth what their own traditions might be. Adding a child’s traditions shows the youth that you care about them and respect their birth family.

To see more of Dr. DeGarmo’s suggestions click here.