Foster Parenting at the Holidays

christmas-tree-1110949_1280That period of time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day is both exciting and hectic for most families. In a period of a little more than a month we may attend many social gatherings and indulge in a variety of seasonal pleasures.

This time can also be overwhelming for children, and particular for foster children. For young people in foster care, the holidays can stir up some difficult memories and conflicted feelings. There are things you can do to make it easier for them.

Try to include some of her favorite things: Ask your foster youth if there is a special food that she would like as part of a holiday meal and ask her to help you prepare it. Try to include rituals that are important to her in your celebration. Help her talk about her previous holidays and the people she celebrated with.

Anticipate mixed feelings: For many foster children the holidays stir up feelings of sadness and grief. It may be a time when she misses or worries about members of her birth family and previous caretakers. Acknowledge her mixed feelings and help her talk about her worries. Let her know that you understand that sometimes she may need a break from all of the festivities. Ask her what would help her when she is feeling out of sorts. To the extent possible support her contact with birth family members and other important people in her life.

Prepare her for meeting new people: At the holidays we sometimes see people that we rarely see at other times of year. Chances are, these people will be new to your foster child. She may be anxious about meeting new people and sharing her story. Remind her that she is not obligated to share her story. And ask her how she would like you to introduce her. Give her some options to choose from, like foster child or friend. Make sure that she knows who is coming and what their connection is to your family.

Gifts can be a mixed blessing: Like every child, your foster child will look forward to getting gifts and, if asked, will probably have a long list of what she wants. Remember that if her previous holidays have been sparse, she may find a large number of presents overwhelming. She may feel guilty about having gifts when she fears that her siblings may be doing without. Ask her what previous holidays have been like for her. Let her tell you about a special gift she received in the past. Try to keep the focus of celebration less on gifts and more on sharing time with others.

Create new memories:  The holidays will create memories your foster child will always have. Help her participate in meaningful rituals at your place of worship or in your community. If you volunteer to help others, find a way for her to participate. If you have a Christmas tree, let her make a special ornament with her name on it. And when the holidays are over, let her see you pack it away and let her know that you will treasure it forever.

Most of all, be there for her this holiday season as she tries to navigate the many feelings that will inevitably arrive. Your caring time and attention is the best gift you can give her, at the holidays and throughout the year.

Difficult Conversations with Your Foster Child: Take Me for a Ride

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.

driving-918950_1280Take 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.

Foster Parenting Challenges: Responding to Self-Defeating Behaviors

crying girlChildren and youth in foster care sometimes seem unable to accept the positive things that are happening in their lives. An adolescent who has been looking forward to a class trip he has earned, may “lose it” it at school on the morning of the activity and have to stay behind. Or, a younger child receives a toy he has longed for and then breaks it when it is barely out of the package. It’s hard for foster parents to know how best to respond to these self-defeating and self-destructive behaviors.

So think about that “invisible suitcase” we talked about in the last blog post. That suitcase often includes low expectations of others and poor self-esteem. If a child doesn’t think that he’ll be treated well by others or that she deserves to have good things happen to her, a seemingly good experience may be anxiety provoking. Sometimes children have learned to sabotage good things before they happen in order to at least have some control over their lives. Other times, they feel they just don’t deserve the good thing, whether it is a special outing or a video game they have wanted. And sometimes they’re aware that their siblings are not getting such “goodies” and feel guilty about enjoying them.

Anticipating such reactions in advance can help you and your foster child. Consider reminding her that sometimes it’s hard to get really excited about something when she’s afraid it may not happen. Encourage your foster child to talk to you about his excitement and to tell you or another trusted person if he’s feeling anxious. If you will be at the event with your child, show her a signal he can give you (such as tapping on your shoulder) if he needs a break from the activity and a chance to chill out. With a younger child who has received a much anticipated gift, the most helpful thing may be to offer to keep it safe in a special place when she’s not using it so she’ll have it for a long time.

Thinking aloud in your foster child’s presence is also a great way to provide support. Wondering out loud whether sometimes kids feel guilty about getting to do things or have special possessions when their siblings don’t can give your foster child permission to feel these things without judgment. It may even help him share with you his mixed feelings, hopefully leading to a great deal of relief. In time and with your love and support, your foster son or daughter will be better able to handle the good things that life has to offer. Your patience and understanding will help make their journey to that better place shorter.

What are the facts about foster care?

May is National Foster Care Month. What are the facts about foster care? How many youth and children are in foster homes? What are the results for youth who have spent all or part of their lives in foster care?

Simmons College School of Social Work created an Infographic that details the harsh realities surrounding youth in the foster care system across the country based on information from national surveys and reports. They found that, nationwide, one in 184 youth are in foster care.

The Infographic shows how youths of all ages, races are represented in the foster care system. However, according to the data, “If one child were to represent all others in the foster care system,  he would be nine years old, white, more likely to be disabled than a child living outside of the foster care system, and trying to reunify with his family.”

Sadly, but not surprisingly, youth who have spent time in foster care are more likely than the general population to have a difficult life. These young people are more likely to become homeless, unemployed or dependent to drugs and alcohol. They are less likely to graduate from high school or college and more likely to commit a crime. 

How do we change these statistics? At Plummer Home we believe three ingredients are essential for these youth to succeed as adults. First and foremost, they must have families who are committed to them for a lifetime. In addition, they need skills and community connections. These beliefs are the basis of the Plummer Home Intervention model. The Simmons’ Infographic shows us all that there are kids out there who need help and why that help is important.

Check out Simmons College’s Infographic for more details on the facts about foster care.

infographic

Foster Parenting Dilemmas: Understanding Puzzling Behaviors

Girl with suitcaseAll children and teenagers exhibit challenging behaviors at times. Usually parents have an idea where such behaviors are coming from. Is the child hungry, cranky, or perhaps experiencing typical challenges and insecurities of the teenage years?

When we understand a behavior, it’s easier to respond in a way that is helpful for the child and comfortable for the parent. Often foster children act in ways that seem to make no sense to their foster parents. A young foster child who is desperate for playmates may consistently push away other children. Or an adolescent foster daughter may act out before an event she has been eagerly anticipating. A foster child may hoard food in his room, attracting both “critters” and the confusion of his foster parents, who provide plenty of food for their family.

A concept called the “invisible suitcase” can be a helpful way to understand such puzzling behaviors: http://bit.ly/1T1cDWR. Children in foster care typically bring with them just a few physical possessions, but along with that they bring the sum total of all of their life experiences. These experiences are the contents of the invisible suitcase.

If a child has learned that he’s not lovable, he carries that feeling in the invisible suitcase he brings to his foster home. And he’ll likely act accordingly as if to ensure that others affirm his negative view of himself. If a child has learned that she can’t trust adults, she carries that in her invisible suitcase and may be resistant to trusting a new adult in her life.

Rest assured, it’s not personal! The behavior that makes no sense to you likely makes perfect sense to your foster child.

You can help unpack that invisible suitcase. Over time, as you provide a healing, loving and consistent set of experiences, the contents of the suitcase will disappear. This will help your foster child let go of the suitcase and move on to tackling the more typical challenges of growing up. We’ll address some specific strategies for managing challenging behaviors in foster care in a future post.

And remember, you’re not alone. These puzzling behaviors can be difficult to manage. Reach out to fellow foster parents and to the social worker at your foster care agency.

Note: For more information on the concept of the invisible suitcase check out http://bit.ly/1T1cDWR on the website of The National Child Traumatic Stress Network.

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.

Foster Youth and Grief

boy 2A child in the foster care system gets angry, acts out, or has a temper tantrum. They are labeled as “difficult” or “oppositional.”

But could these behaviors be an expected symptom of their grief?

Shenandoah Chefalo writes about this very topic in Youth Today. She convincingly argues that while we often allow for outbursts of a grieving person after the death of a loved one, we are not as likely to have that same understanding for a tough youth in foster care that may have lost all they have known and is familiar to them.

She reminds us that “These children have suffered a tremendous loss — a deep sadness and grief that often goes unrecognized and leads to deeper traumas.” It encourages those who care for youth in the system to remember that one of the most important roles of foster parents involves helping youth identify and cope with their grief.

To read more of Chefalo’s article, click here.

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?

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.

Not Ready to Be a Foster Parent? Help by Volunteering

Foster Care tablingFoster care is all over the news in Massachusetts. Story after story has lots of people wanting to help. But they’re not sure how. For many, becoming a foster parent is not a possibility – sometimes not now, maybe not ever. That’s okay. And it doesn’t mean you can’t help.

There are many great organizations in Massachusetts working to make life better for foster children, and they all rely on volunteers to help deliver kindness, stability, support and safety.

A great example is CASA, Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children. CASA recruits and trains volunteers to advocate for foster kids in front of judges who make decisions about children’s living situations. CASA is a national program, with local affiliates in most states.

Another group helping foster kids is Together We Rise. Founded by college students, it hosts events and raises money for many different projects, such as providing duffel bags and donating bikes to foster kids, funding trips where siblings are reunited at Disneyworld, and even offering college scholarships.

Volunteers are the heart and soul of many of these organizations, and Plummer Foster Care as well as Plummer’s Group Home, also benefit from volunteer efforts. Our dedicated supporters give as they can, whether that means dropping off boxes of favorite kids’ cereals a few times a year, baking pies for Thanksgiving, making birthday cakes, raking leaves in the fall, planting flowers in the spring, or staffing tables with information about Plummer Foster Care at various events in the region.

Even if you can’t be foster parent, perhaps you have a special talent or skill you can share. Are you good at math? Music? Reading? Can you spare a little extra time to pick up groceries? Give a kid a ride?  If you, like many people, want to help, please let us know! There are so many children who can benefit from your generosity.

Call Plummer Foster Care at 978-955-9555 today!

Other resources for ideas about how to help kids in foster care:

https://www.childwelfare.gov/fostercaremonth/resources/communities/#informed

http://foster2forever.com/2014/05/help-foster-child-family.html

http://nfpaonline.org/